Judges to EPA: Get the Lead Out (on Protecting Children’s Brains)

For years, the EPA has dragged its heels on strengthening lead standards. Thanks to a court order and Earthjustice litigation, it now has 90 days.

Bruce Lanphear
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 dragging its heels for almost two decades, the EPA was recently ordered by a court to update its standards on allowable lead levels in paint and dust, which are some of the most common causes of lead poisoning in children in the U.S. Today, more than 25 million older housing units around the country contain lead paint. The agency now has 90 days to present a proposed rule for public comment.

Scientist and physician Bruce Lanphear, who is working with Earthjustice to push for an updated standard, explains how this decision, if implemented, will protect the brains of thousands of children across the country.

1. First of all, how is lead in paint still an issue?

The identification and clean-up of dust lead hazards should have been resolved in 2001, when the EPA first enacted the lead standards. Unfortunately, the EPA misrepresented our study, which the agency used as the key epidemiological study, because they didn’t believe lower lead dust levels could be achieved. We found that dust lead levels should be much lower and estimated that one out of five kids would be lead poisoned using the standard that the EPA ultimately decided on.

Then, despite new evidence coming out over the next several years, the EPA failed to update the standard and lower it to protect kids. For me, this court decision represents a 20-year battle. I can’t tell you how many times my wife and kids had to hear me rant and rave about the flawed standards. When I heard about the court’s decision forcing the EPA to act, it was time to celebrate.

2. What kind of impact will this 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.

When updated and strengthened, the EPA standard will give people 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 EPA standard.

3. Why did you partner with Earthjustice?

Publishing the science isn’t the end game; it is only the beginning. Only when the science is integrated into standards do you protect children. The standards were 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.

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

Well it’s certainly feasible now and it was feasible then to achieve much lower dust lead levels than what the EPA thought was feasible. Why am I so confident? Because we did the study in one of the most heavily contaminated communities in the U.S., and yet the vast majority of children in our study had dust lead levels well below the EPA’s limit.

One thing that might surprise people is that almost every lead standard is based more on what was thought to be feasible rather than 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. That was a reasonable approach – 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.

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

There are a number of things. 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.

6. So even low levels of lead are unsafe?

Yes. As blood lead levels increase from 0 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. This calls into question our core assumptions about the way the EPA and other agencies regulate toxic chemicals, which assumes that there is a threshold or safe level of exposure – and we’ve found no evidence of one for lead.

7. How can we better protect ourselves and our children from toxic chemicals?

We need to be able to design a long-term strategy to protect people 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.

8. 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 mothers, 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.

9. 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 is 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.

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.