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Community Groups across the Country Challenge EPA over Failure to Update Protections from Lead Poisoning

Inadequate protections endanger young children in schools, homes, and other buildings currently deemed safe
A child draws with chalk.
iStock.com / Wundervisuals
August 24, 2016
Washington, D.C. —

A coalition of national and regional groups across the country is suing the United States Environmental Protection Agency for failing to update standards that protect families against neurotoxic lead-based paint and lead dust.

The “unreasonable delay” lawsuit, filed today in U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, argues that seven years after EPA granted a 2009 petition to update these standards, EPA has yet to propose—much less finalize—any new standards.

The organizations taking action include A Community Voice, California Communities Against Toxics, Healthy Homes Collaborative, New Jersey Citizen Action, New York City Coalition to End Lead Poisoning, Sierra Club, WE ACT for Environmental Justice and United Parents Against Lead National.

In the filing, the coalition asked the court to require the Environmental Protection Agency to propose an updated rule within 90 days and finalize that rule within six months, noting that federal courts have compelled action on other matters when public health is at risk.

“The Flint crisis puts the dangers of lead poisoning in the national spotlight,” said Earthjustice attorney Hannah Chang, who filed the suit on behalf of the groups. “These organizations want people to know that lead exposure is irreversibly damaging people’s health in communities all over the country and they want EPA to do its job to protect children from harm. The most common cause of lead poisoning in children in this country is the ingestion of lead dust from old house paint.”

A number of organizations made the initial request to EPA in 2009 based on scientific evidence that showed the existing lead standards were inadequate to protect the public’s health. Children under the age of six are particularly vulnerable to neurological damage from lead because they’re growing rapidly.

“At the age of three, my youngest son was diagnosed with lead poisoning. He had a shockingly high lead level of 89 in his blood from the lead dust on surfaces throughout our home,” said Virginia mother Shate Cummings. “My son now faces challenges like a speech impairment that he’s working with a speech therapist to overcome. His doctor says that we’ll begin to see the full effects of his lead poisoning when he’s five or six years old. Families need to know if they live in homes that can poison their children. That’s why we need the Environmental Protection Agency to act now to update their lead standards.”

Lead poisoning can cause severe physical and mental impairment and death, according to the Mayo Clinic. In adults, lead exposure, even in miniscule amounts, can cause high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease and damage to the male reproductive system. In children, it can cause diminished I.Q., learning disabilities, hyperactivity, impaired hearing and attention-related behavioral problems.

Housing stock constructed before 1980 contains more than 3 million tons of lead in the form of lead-based paint, with most homes constructed before 1950 containing substantial amounts of lead-based paint.

“In Los Angeles County we know that 99% of cases of lead-poisoned children are from old housing and the surrounding contaminated soil," said Linda Kite, Executive Director of the Healthy Homes Collaborative. “Revising the dust standards is a critical step in primary prevention and will tackle this problem efficiently.”

“Our children have no chance against lead poisoning if we keep these dangers hidden,” said Queen Zakia Rafiqa Shabazz, mother of a lead-poisoned son and Founder of United Parents Against Lead. “EPA’s outdated standards and lack of enforcement let lead remain hidden and silent, causing irreversible brain damage, learning disabilities and reduced IQ in children. We as parents want to protect our children but we can do little against an invisible enemy. A child is a terrible thing to waste.”

"Nearly forty years since lead in paint was banned for residential use, it is simply outrageous that our children and grandchildren continue to be used as human lead detectors. The EPA must revise their standards to protect the millions of children living in homes built before 1978 from irreversible damage from an entirely preventable toxic hazard,” said Phyllis Salowe-Kaye, Executive Director of New Jersey Citizen Action.

Communities of color and low-income families are more at risk of lead exposure and poisoning, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. WE ACT for Environmental Justice, one of the nation’s largest environmental justice organizations, called on EPA to do more to protect communities from lead, which has disparate impacts on communities of color and low-income families.

“We know that low-income children and children of color are the most at-risk for lead poisoning in New York City. Over 80% of all newly identified cases of lead poisoning at 15 μg/dL blood lead level or greater are Asian, African American and Latino children,” said Dr. Adrienne L. Hollis, Director of Federal Policy, WE ACT for Environmental Justice.

“Since EPA has failed to revise the dust lead hazard standards and the definition of lead-based paint, WE ACT strongly supports the current lawsuit aimed at their delay.”

Leslie Fields, Director of the Sierra Club's Environmental Justice and Community Partnerships Program also expressed concern about disparate impacts on communities of color: "Lead poisoning is one of the top childhood environmental health problems, and low-income and minority children and their families disproportionately suffer its lifelong effects. The crisis in Flint—and there are ‘Flints’ everywhere—has underscored the need for EPA to act quickly to address this widespread public health problem."

Jane Williams, Executive Director of California Communities Against Toxics, said “EPA needs to take strong action to ensure that after a lead remediation is completed children are safe in their homes. The existing standards for how much lead can remain in a home are not protective enough and need to be updated.”

Read the legal document.

(Leer en español.)

Contacts

Keith Rushing, Earthjustice, (202) 797-5236, (757) 897-2147

Zoe Woodcraft, Earthjustice, (415) 217-2071, (818) 606-7509