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In a Big Win for Kids, EPA Finally Proposes to Strengthen Lead Standards

Stronger lead standards, prompted by Earthjustice litigation, will better protect thousands of children nationwide.

Bruce Lanphear’s scientific work showed the dangers of low-level lead exposure. His work with Earthjustice helped ensure safer homes for our children.
Bruce Lanphear’s scientific work showed the dangers of low-level lead exposure. His work with Earthjustice helped ensure safer homes for our children. (Taehoon Kim for Earthjustice)

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After almost two decades of dragging its heels, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recently announced plans to reduce the amount of lead allowed in household dust, one of the most common sources of lead poisoning in children in the U.S.

The EPA’s decision was prompted by an Earthjustice lawsuit in 2016, which argued that the agency’s inaction was putting children in danger, particularly those living in low-income neighborhoods and communities of color. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals agreed, ordering the EPA to update its standards within 90 days.

Scientist and physician Bruce Lanphear, who worked with Earthjustice to push for an update to these decades-old standards, explains how the EPA’s strengthened regulations will protect the brains of thousands of children across the country. At the same time, Earthjustice and its allies will continue to push the agency to make its lead standards even more protective — because there is no safe level of lead.

Take Action! Urge the EPA to enact the strongest possible lead standards.

What kind of impact will updated lead standards have for families?

Imagine that I’m a father who lives in an older home and my wife is pregnant. I diligently read the EPA website and the current standards. I scrape the old paint off the nursery walls, and I even hire an environmental lab to come out and measure the dust lead levels. The lab report says that the levels are safe according to the current standards, and I breathe a sigh of relief because I’ve done everything by the book to protect my child. And then I bring my child home and she ends up lead-poisoned because the current EPA standards provide an illusion of safety.

With a more protective standard on lead in dust, people will have more of the information they need to protect their children and prevent them from developing lead poisoning, as opposed to inadvertently poisoning their child by following the current standards.

Why did you partner with Earthjustice?

Publishing the science isn’t the end game; it’s only the beginning. Only when the science is integrated into standards do you protect children. The current standards are inadequate and they provided an illusion of safety, so whenever I’ve been asked to participate in a petition or lawsuit on this issue, I’ve signed on because the science demanded it.

Leading health organizations have said there are no safe levels of lead. Is it feasible to eliminate lead entirely from our lives?

It’s certainly feasible to achieve much lower lead levels in dust and house paint.

One thing that might surprise people is that almost every lead standard today is based more on what was thought to be feasible rather than on the science. Do you know how they came up with one of the first lead paint standards? A committee opened up a bunch of cans of house paint and found that many of them had lead concentrations below 600 parts per million. So they set the standard at below 600. That was a reasonable approach back then — and it helped reduce lead poisoning — but one would hope that there would be subsequent studies to find out what’s necessary to further protect children, who are especially vulnerable to lead’s impacts.

Besides addressing house paint, how else can we reduce our exposure to lead?

We need to replace lead water pipes, get rid of lead wheel weights, phase out or ban jet fuel that’s used in regional airports around the country, and lower the allowable levels of lead in lipsticks and cosmetics. Some of these sources are fairly modest, but lead exposure from various sources add up. And if there is no safe level of lead in children’s blood, then there should be extremely low levels in the products they’re exposed to or in the air they breathe.

Why are even low levels of lead unsafe?
As blood lead levels increase from zero to 100 parts per billion, there’s a 6-point drop in IQ; from 100 to 200 parts per billion, there’s another 2-point drop in IQ; and from 200 to 300 parts per billion there’s a 1-point drop in IQ. That means that there are proportionately greater declines in IQ at the lowest level of exposure. It’s quite striking. And it’s actually not unique. For some of the most well studied and widely dispersed toxic chemicals and pollutants, we see a similar pattern.

How can we better protect ourselves and our children from toxic chemicals?
If there are no safe levels for some of the most well-studied toxic chemicals and pollutants and we won’t be able to achieve full protection for many years, we need to enact a strategy now that will help eventually bring about a healthier environment.

We should rely more heavily on public transportation and electric cars; we should develop a plan to eliminate all nonessential uses of lead; we should phase out the use of chemical flame retardants and toxic pesticides; and we should develop a strategy that doesn’t allow chemicals to be used in commerce until they have been shown to be non-toxic. This might sound like wishful thinking, but other countries have begun to do this, and there’s no reason the U.S. can’t.

Is that kind of change really possible here?

Yes. First we have to have campaign reform so our politicians aren’t owned by major corporations. That’s going to take time, but it’s critical.

Second, if the public, and in particular parents, get pissed off, I am confident that things will begin to change. It won’t happen tomorrow, but we have to start now. Like the German physicist Max Planck once more or less said, “Science progresses one funeral at a time.” We may have to wait for the old guys to die to see change, but we’ll get there.

What gives you hope that will eventually happen?

Last year I co-authored a study that found that pollution was responsible for 16 percent of premature deaths in 2015. That’s a troubling statistic because it suggests that at least 16 percent of premature deaths are because we’ve fouled our nest. On the other hand, it is quite hopeful because it means we don’t need any more genetic studies or expensive drugs to prevent those deaths. We know how to prevent them; we made the problem and we can fix it.

Take Action! Urge the EPA to enact the strongest possible lead standards.

An earlier version of this story was published on March 12, 2018.

Jessica is a former award-winning journalist. She enjoys wild places and dispensing justice, so she considers her job here to be a pretty amazing fit.

Established in 2008, Earthjustice’s Northeast Office, located in New York City, is at the forefront of issues at the intersection of energy, environmental health, and social justice.