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The incidence rate of babies born with fetal alcohol syndrome more than tripled between 1979 and 1992, according to a study released this month by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The rate of such births increased from 1 per 10,000 births in 1979 to 3.7 per 10,000 births in 1992, according to the report published in the May 7 issue of the C.D.C.'s "Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.''

Researchers collected the data from hospitals that are part of the agency's birth-defects-monitoring program.

A total of 1,782 cases of the syndrome were reported among more than 9 million births that occurred over the 13-year period, the report says.

David Erickson, the chief of the agency's birth-defects and genetic-diseases branch, explained that increased awareness of the syndrome among physicians in the hospitals may have contributed in part to the increase in the number of cases reported.

But, he cautioned that the difficulty physicians have in diagnosing the condition in infants means that the syndrome may be even more prevalent than the survey suggests.

Fetal alcohol syndrome, the leading preventable cause of birth defects and mental retardation according to the C.D.C., is characterized by a variety of physical and behavioral traits including prenatal or postnatal growth deficiency, abnormal facial features, and deficits in the central nervous system.

Physicians recommend that women refrain from drinking during pregnancy because studies have shown that even modest alcohol consumption can impair the development of a child.

President Clinton announced this month that he is seeking funds to launch an advertising campaign to educate parents and children about the dangers of lead poisoning.

The televised public-service announcements featuring such celebrities as the actress Phylicia Rashad, the co-star of "The Cosby Show,'' would stress the importance of early lead screenings for children.

The plan also calls for establishing a 24-hour hotline for parents, staffed by English and Spanish speakers, who would provide information on lead and urge early testing for children.

The campaign would be administered by the lead-pollution-programs branch of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Mr. Clinton has requested a $35 million increase for those programs for fiscal 1994.

One out of six U.S. children under age 6 has elevated lead levels in their blood, according to the most recent E.P.A. data.

Paint chips, dust, and soil contaminants are the most common sources of lead exposure. Low-income children who live in older homes where lead paint is more common are most at risk.--J.P.

Vol. 12, Issue 34

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