The Environmental Protection Agency has finally tightened the regulatory limit on airborne lead, lowering the legal maximum to a tenth of what it was, on grounds that it poses a more serious threat to young children than officials had realized. The change, the first in 30 years, was required under a litigation-forced settlement. It came despite a last-minute lobbying effort by battery recyclers and the Bush White House to weaken the final rule. The lawsuit that brought about the change was filed by the Missouri Coalition for the Environment.
The current standard of 1.5 micrograms per cubic meter of air is being lowered to 0.15 micrograms per cubic meter. That figure was in keeping with the recommendations of both the EPA staff and the agency’s independent Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee, but the EPA’s Children’s Health Protection Advisory Committee had urged a sharply lower limit of 0.02 micrograms.
Environmentalists hailed the decision as a significant public health advance, but questioned some aspects of the EPA’s plans for measuring lead pollution under the new rule. The vast majority of airborne lead, a neurotoxin that reduces young children’s IQ, comes from lead smelters. The lead in the air eventually falls to the ground, and most of children’s exposure comes from indoor dust and soil.
Since 1990, 6,000 scientific studies have shown that young children suffer harm at much lower blood lead levels than was recognized when the old standard was set in 1978. The American Academy of Pediatrics issued a statement praising the EPA for the new standard, but continued: “There is no safe level of lead exposure for children.” Dr. Gina Solomon, a senior scientist with the advocacy group Natural Resources Defense Council, made this statement:
We commend EPA for taking a giant step in the right direction, but they need to greatly expand the lead-monitoring network if they hope to enforce this new standard. However, this Administration has dismantled half of the air-monitoring stations across the country. With less than 200 air lead monitors nationwide, scientists don’t even know how much lead is in the air in most communities.
The EPA says it will expand its network to monitor any source that emits one ton of lead or more a year into the air, along with urban areas with populations of more than 500,000. I wasn’t surprised to learn that the Bush White House had pressured the EPA to scale back the monitoring so it would apply only to large population centers. According to the EPA, there are 16,000 sources across the country emitting 1,300 tons of lead into the air each year.
In the United States, lead has been banned from gasoline and paint since the 1970s, and between 1980 and 2005, the average amount of lead in the air plummeted by nearly 97%. But the neurotoxin does not break down in the environment, and lead exposure is elevated in urban areas, especially in minority and low-income communities. More than 300,000 American children display adverse effects from lead poisoning, and elevated lead exposure can result in increased blood pressure and decreased kidney function in adults.
The new restrictions will take full effect in 2017. The Institute of Clean Air Companies, which represents pollution-control manufacturers, has said that it could work to apply technology currently used in other operations to battery recycling plants. The EPA has a clear duty “to protect public health with an adequate margin of safety.” Environmental groups criticized the EPA’s decision to measure lead pollution levels over three-month averages rather than the one-month averages the agency’s scientific advisers recommended. The groups say averaging the readings over three months would obscure spikes in pollution that could threaten children and adults. At least this action by the EPA – realizing that the Bush crowd was against any change – is a step in the right direction.
Source: Washington Post
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