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When Paint Chips are Not the Only Danger

We all know the danger that resides in lead-laden paint chips peeling off the walls of old homes. It’s well understood that lead is poisonous and, even in small doses, can harm brain function and cause learning disabilities in children. Lead also is associated with impairment of the cardiovascular, reproductive, kidney and immune systems of adults.

That's why a USA Today investigation documenting the high amounts of lead children are exposed to in several communities across the nation is so alarming. But more on that later.

In early April, Earthjustice filed a legal action on behalf of five national and local environmental groups seeking to clean up toxic lead pollution from facilities known as secondary lead smelters. These facilities, also known as battery recyclers, extract and process lead from scrap material and old batteries, exposing communities to lead, cadmium, arsenic and other toxic air pollutants. The case involves the amount of toxic air pollution going into the air in more than a dozen communities around the U.S.

Although the EPA’s air pollution limits for lead smelters have not received much media attention, a 14-month long USA Today investigation produced a series of stories, as well as a resourceful interactive website about former smelters. Sadly, the investigation found that the EPA and state regulators throughout the nation left thousands of families and children at risk for lead poisoning, failing to adequately address the danger around the more-than 230 lead smelter or lead manufacturing locations in 25 states.

The newspaper’s website includes an interactive map that allows readers to research former smelter locations near them.

Earthjustice legal action addresses EPA’s air pollution rules to limit lead pollution from existing and new facilities. The USA Today series looks at facilities that left behind their poisonous legacy, despite many closing their doors decades ago, and only reinforces how important it is to protect children exposed to both past smelter sites and currently operating facilities.

Because lead is a pollutant that stays in the environment, areas near current and former smelter sites often have dangerously high levels of soil contamination, as USA Today found. The more lead that continues to go into the air, the more re-contamination is likely to occur.

In the first part of the series “Failure to Protect,” USA Today reporter Alison Young writes:

More than a decade ago, government regulators received specific warnings that the soil in hundreds of U.S. neighborhoods might be contaminated with dangerous levels of lead from factories operating in the 1930s to 1960s … Despite warnings, federal and state officials repeatedly failed to find out just how bad the problems were … In some cases, government officials failed to order cleanups when inspectors detected hazardous amounts of lead in local neighborhoods. People who live nearby—sometimes directly on top of—old smelters were not warned, left unaware in many cases of the factories’ existence and the dangers that remain. Instead, they bought and sold homes and let their children play in contaminated yards.

The story introduces readers to many people who were shocked to learn about the past lead facilities near their homes, including Ken Shefton, a father of five sons who didn’t know his Cleveland home is a few blocks from Tyroler Metals, a lead smelting facility that shuttered in 1957 but contaminated the area around Shefton’s home with lead.

“I needed to know that,” Shefton said in the story, whose children regularly play in the area. Kathleen Marshall, a Philadelphia mother of five, who also didn’t know that she was living across the street from a former factory, and whose yard USA Today found is contaminated with hazardous levels of lead said: “You’re living here and you have no idea of what’s really in your ground, what’s in your backyard … It’s just kind of scary to think that you’re sending your kids out to play in an area that’s hazardous.”

The story reveals:

The Environmental Protection Agency and state regulators clearly knew of the danger. They tested soil throughout the neighborhood and documented hazardous levels of contamination. They never did a cleanup. They didn’t warn people living nearby that the tainted soil endangers their children.

The series includes a report on USA Today’s own testing results, information and videos on the Tyroler Metals facility in Cleveland, Ohio, which operated from about 1927–1957, the White Brothers Smelting Co. site in Philadelphia, a map and index of all 230 confirmed sites with information and documents and some “Take Action” tips to address potential lead contamination in homes.

Earthjustice attorney Emma Cheuse, who is working on the effort to defend and strengthen recent Environmental Protection Agency air rules for lead smelters, said:

Communities living near past and currently operating lead smelters have faced high levels of lead and other toxic pollution for too long, often without even knowing the serious health risk, particularly for children. This informative USA Today investigation reinforces how urgent it is for EPA to take common sense action to protect communities from the health threats caused by both past and ongoing pollution from lead-emitting facilities.

Postscript: As a result of USA Today’s investigation, government officials are taking action to address pollution from old smelter sites in 14 states, including reopening flawed investigations, testing soil and cleaning up contaminated property.