updated 3/30/2005 8:17:25 AM ET 2005-03-30T13:17:25

Children may be more vulnerable than adults to cancer risks from certain gene-damaging chemicals, the Environmental Protection Agency said Tuesday.

The agency has updated the way it decides which pollutants pose cancer risks, which is intended to lead to better and more accurate reviews of carcinogens that might be regulated.

Under the previous EPA guidelines, last revised in 1986, cancer risks to children were assumed to be no greater than to similarly exposed adults.

In the first such update in nearly 20 years, the EPA said children 2 years old and younger might be 10 times more vulnerable than adults to certain chemicals. Children between the ages of 2 and 16 might be three times more vulnerable to certain chemicals.

The EPA also said it is seeking new ways to gather scientific data on possible carcinogens. It said “the consideration of new, peer-reviewed scientific understanding and data in an assessment can always be consistent with the purposes of these cancer guidelines.”

The guidelines were made final after several reviews by the EPA’s science advisory board during the past nine years, as the science of assessing cancer risks has evolved.

“The agency’s new cancer guidelines represent an opportunity to bring our best understanding of how chemicals might lead to cancer, and provide our best information for regulatory decision-making,” said William Farland, the EPA’s chief scientist on the issue.

Environmentalists liked some aspects of the guidelines, but criticized others.

Jennifer Sass, a senior scientist for the Natural Resources Defense Council praised the EPA for seeking new ways of getting scientific data and methods and acknowledging that exposures to pollutants early in life can be especially damaging.

But she said that the Bush administration added language that “basically provides a lot of opportunity for the chemical industry to hold up or stymie chemical reviews.” She said the EPA would be asking more “expert elicitation” and “data quality” to justify letting outside parties “push EPA” by insisting on outside opinions.

Farland said, however, that EPA would maintain the integrity of its process and the agency “has a long history of using peer review as an important part of our process.”

The new guidelines are online at http://www.epa.gov/cancerguidelines.

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