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WASHINGTON (AP) _ Environmental pollutants that contribute to asthma are the target of a new research plan issued Thursday by the Environmental Protection Agency.

EPA Administrator Christie Whitman said the number of asthma problems in the United States, particularly among children, is alarming, requiring better research into factors like genetic susceptibility, health and socioeconomic status, lifestyle and activity patterns.

``This is the important next step that I think will get us to the point where we can begin to control the number of children that have asthma,'' Whitman said of EPA's new asthma research strategy. ``Reducing the number of children who suffer from asthma is one of our top health priorities.''

Asthma has become the most common long-term childhood disease, affecting 4.8 million children each year; nearly one in 13 school-age children now has it, according to EPA.

``That truly does start to reach epidemic proportions,'' Whitman said, though she added that ``it's hard to call something that's not contagious an epidemic.''

Nationally, some 26 million adults and children annually suffer from asthma, she said.

EPA's new strategy also calls for more immediate research into how asthma is induced and worsens, what makes some more susceptible to it than others and what are the biggest risks for people who might get it.

John Kirkwood, president of the American Lung Association, said his group supports EPA's approach.

``I have long believed that environment plays a very major part in triggering asthma attacks,'' he said.

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On the Net:

Environmental Protection Agency: http://www.epa.gov/iaq/asthma