WASHINGTON — The Environmental Protection Agency on Tuesday placed the head of its Office of Children’s Health Protection on administrative leave, in an unusual move that several observers said appeared to reflect an effort to minimize the role of the office.
Dr. Ruth Etzel, a pediatrician and epidemiologist who has been a leader in children’s environmental health for 30 years, joined the E.P.A. in 2015, after having served as a senior officer for environmental health research at the World Health Organization. She was placed on administrative leave late Tuesday and asked to hand over her badge, keys and cellphone, according to an E.P.A. official familiar with the decision who was not authorized to discuss the move and asked not to be identified.
An E.P.A. spokesman, John Konkus, confirmed that Dr. Etzel had been placed on administrative leave and declined to give the reason.
The E.P.A.’s Office of Children’s Health Protection, created by President Bill Clinton in 1997, is tasked with seeing that agency regulations and programs take into account the particular vulnerabilities of children, babies and fetuses. Children are more vulnerable than adults to pollution and other potential exposure because their bodies are still developing and because they eat, drink and breathe more in proportion to their size. In addition, some of their behaviors, such as crawling or putting things in their mouths, potentially expose them to chemicals or toxins.
Several people within the E.P.A. or who work closely with the agency said that Dr. Etzel’s dismissal is one of several recent developments that have slowed the work of the children’s health office. One person cited a proposal outlining a strategy for reducing childhood lead exposure, which had been in development for over a year with the involvement of 17 federal agencies, and which has been stalled since early July.
The Office of Children’s Health Protection is technically housed in the office of the E.P.A. administrator, Andrew Wheeler, who has served as the agency’s acting administrator since July.
Under Mr. Wheeler and his predecessor, Scott Pruitt, who left the position earlier this year amid investigations into his oversight of the agency, the E.P.A. has aggressively pursued an agenda of rolling back environmental restrictions on numerous pollutants, arguing that the regulations are overly strict or that they burden industry.
“This seems like a sneaky way for the E.P.A. to get rid of this program and not be upfront about it,” said Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, the director of the pediatric residency program at Hurley Medical Center, a teaching hospital affiliated with Michigan State University, whose analysis of blood tests in Flint, Mich. — a community that became caught up in a lead crisis affecting its drinking water — played a key role in showing that residents were being poisoned by the lead. Dr. Hanna-Atisha called Dr. Etzel “an international leader in children’s health.”
The decision to put the department head on administrative leave “is highly unusual,” said Joseph Goffman, a former senior counsel for the E.P.A. during the Obama administration.
The office Dr. Etzel oversees is small, with a budget of about $2 million and 15 full-time employees in Washington and 10 regional children’s health coordinators, some of whom have other responsibilities in addition to children’s health.
Mr. Konkus, the E.P.A. spokesman, said the Trump administration had no intention to diminish or eliminate an office designed to protect children’s health. “Children’s health is and has always been a top priority for the Trump administration and the E.P.A. in particular is focused on reducing lead exposure in schools, providing funds for a cleaner school bus fleet and cleaning up toxic sites so that children have safe environments to learn and play,” he said in an emailed statement.
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