Building on one of its all-time success stories, the Environmental Protection Agency announced Thursday that it plans to adopt a more stringent health standard for airborne lead to protect the nation’s children.
Under the long-awaited proposal, the amount of lead allowed in the air would be dramatically lower than the current limit, which was adopted 30 years ago. Nationally, airborne lead has dropped nearly 98% since the original standard prompted the phase-out of leaded gasoline.
Inhaling or ingesting small doses of the metal can damage developing nervous systems, reducing children’s IQs and causing learning disabilities and behavior problems. Since the original standard was adopted, numerous scientific studies have shown that children’s brains are altered at much lower levels of lead in the bloodstream than previously thought.
Only one place in the U.S. -- Herculaneum, Mo., which has the nation’s last remaining lead smelter -- had readings last year that violated the current standard for lead. Under the EPA’s new proposal, as many as 23 counties could be thrown out of compliance, which means local officials there would have to adopt new regulations for smelters, foundries, mines and other industries.
None of the counties that would violate the new standard are in California; all are in the Northeast, the Southeast, the Midwest, Colorado, Utah and Texas. The Salt Lake City area is the farthest west.
Two years ago, the EPA was under fire from environmentalists and some members of Congress for including in its review the option of eliminating the lead standard. A coalition of U.S. battery makers had urged the agency to remove lead from its list of air pollutants.
In a report last November, EPA staffers recommended against that option and told top agency officials that they should set a much more stringent standard to protect children from lowered IQs.
“The overall body of evidence [on lead health effects] clearly calls into question the adequacy of the current standard,” the EPA staff report said.
EPA Administrator Stephen L. Johnson agreed, proposing Thursday to set a new standard within the range of 0.10 to 0.30 micrograms of lead per cubic meter of air. The current standard is 1.5 micrograms, exceeded only by Missouri’s Jefferson County, which recorded the nation’s highest reading last year with 1.93, EPA data show.
The new proposal is “up to 93% stronger” than the current standard, said Marcus C. Peacock, the EPA’s deputy administrator, who added that it would “keep clean-air progress moving forward.”
The EPA is under a court order to issue a final new standard by September. The agency will hold public hearings on its proposal June 12 in St. Louis and Baltimore.
Environmentalists, however, remain concerned that the upper limit under consideration is more lax than what the EPA’s scientific advisors recommended. The scientists had said the standard should be no weaker than 0.20 micrograms.
Also, the EPA left some room for changing its mind, seeking advice from the public over the next 60 days about whether to adopt weaker or stronger alternatives, including levels as high as 0.50 micrograms. It also asked for comments about “when, if ever,” the standard should be eliminated.
The proposal “is generally a step in the right direction, but it is still flawed,” said Avinash Kar, an attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council. “This new standard simply doesn’t go far enough.”
Frank O’Donnell of the group Clean Air Watch said, “Although at first glance this looks promising, EPA’s proposal has all the makings of a bait and switch.” He speculated that the EPA would adopt the least stringent number in the range, as it did recently with a smog standard.
Most urban areas -- including Los Angeles, Riverside and San Bernardino counties -- are well below the proposed limits. Lead there was at a maximum of 0.02 to 0.03 micrograms in 2005-06, an order of magnitude below the proposal, according to EPA data.
But only about 100 counties test their air for lead. The agency plans to require areas with more than 1 million people or with large sources of emissions to monitor the air for lead.
Only trace amounts of lead remain in gasoline and diesel fuel. But it still pollutes the air from smelters, foundries, mines, metals processing, cement plants and other industrial facilities, as well as some general aviation aircraft.
About 16,000 industrial sources release a total of about 1,300 tons of lead into the air each year, the EPA said.
In addition to breathing lead, children often ingest it from old paint, toys and drinking water from lead solder pipes, but those sources are regulated by other laws. Children face the most risk up to about age 6.
Under the Clean Air Act, the EPA is required every five years to review health standards for six major air pollutants, including lead. But the agency repeatedly missed its deadlines, and environmental groups in Missouri sued, winning a court order that required a proposal by Thursday.