Calling lead "the No. 1 environmental poison for children," the Bush Administration on Thursday proposed a long-term strategy to reduce exposure to the toxic substance.
As many as 3 million to 4 million American children under 6 have high enough levels of lead in their blood to cause mental and other health problems, said Health and Human Services Secretary Louis W. Sullivan. "Lead poisoning is entirely preventable, yet it is the most common and societally devastating environmental disease of young children," he said in a statement.
Federal officials estimated that the plan would cost nearly $1 billion over the next five years. The Administration has proposed spending only $50 million in fiscal 1992, and officials said that the cost would have to be shared with state and local governments and the private sector.
Lawmakers and consumer groups attacked the lack of federal funding. "Plans by themselves won't prevent a single case of lead poisoning," said Karen Florini, a senior attorney with the Environmental Defense Fund.
The major elements of the plan, which involves several federal agencies, include expanding prevention programs, identifying and treating the estimated 250,000 children with extremely dangerous lead levels, eliminating existing lead-based paint in housing and decreasing other sources of lead exposure, including the amount in drinking water.
The strategy also includes plans for identifying major geographic "hot spots" where there are high concentrations of contaminated homes and children at risk. Moreover, it calls for developing more cost-effective ways of removing lead-based paint--an expensive process that averages about $6,500 for each house. It also urged the encouragement of recycling to reduce lead contamination.
Besides lead-based paint, the metal is found in soil, dust and, because of corrosion of lead pipes and other fixtures, in water. It can cause serious health damage, particularly to the central nervous system. Children are especially vulnerable.
Lead affects virtually every bodily system. It has been linked to kidney disease and hypertension and is particularly harmful to the developing brain and nervous system. Thus, lead exposure is especially devastating to children and fetuses and can cause learning disabilities, deficits in IQ and behavioral problems. Severe lead exposure can cause coma, convulsions and even death. "Lead-based paint and urban soil and dust are by far the largest contributors to risk," William K. Reilly, administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, told members of the Senate Environment and Public Works subcommittee on toxic substances. "In contrast, lead in drinking water affects nearly everybody but at relatively low levels."
In a report, HHS said findings in recent years have shown that the effects of exposure to even moderate levels of lead are even more pervasive and long-lasting than previously thought.
The current level considered critical is 25 micrograms of lead per deciliter of blood. But a federal reassessment "may place the new threshold for concern at 10 to 15 micrograms per deciliter," said Dr. James O. Mason, assistant secretary for health.
HHS, which estimated the overall cost at $974 million during the plan's first five years, said about $730 million of that money would be needed to remove lead paint in housing. HUD has estimated that 57 million homes have some lead-based paint. Of these, about 9.9 million are occupied by families with children under age 7.
Of the $50 million in federal funds the Administration has proposed spending next year, nearly $15 million would go to a lead-screening grant program administered by the Centers for Disease Control and $25 million to a HUD program that provides money to local governments for lead-based paint removal in privately owned housing.
"We need to enlist the aid of all society" to fund the plans, Mason said. "Collectively, society will have to ante up in the next five years."
Environmental and children's advocacy groups and others praised the strategy but insisted that it would not work without a substantial federal commitment to fund it.
"We worry that the summer soldiers at OMB (the White House Office of Management and Budget) will desert the very lead strategies that are up for discussion today," said Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.), chairman of the subcommittee and author of a bill that would restrict the use of lead in commercial products.
Florini said the strategies "fail to address the most important question of all: How do we pay for an aggressive program to get lead out of our children's environment?"