EPA’s draft lead strategy is a positive start but lacks concrete commitments

As children across the country are drinking and breathing lead, EPA must take concrete steps


Alejandro Dávila, adavila@earthjustice.org 

Today, the Environmental Protection Agency unveiled a draft lead strategy that the agency says will strengthen public health protections and address legacy lead contamination for the most exposed communities. But the plan is woefully short on specifics beyond the detailed description of the serious lead problem that communities around the country face.

EPA’s draft adopts admirable goals, including reducing community exposures to lead with a focus on lead “hot spots,” and communicating more effectively with impacted communities. It promises to set new recommendations for screening lead-contaminated Superfund sites and strengthen preliminary remediation goals to reduce lead exposure. It commits to “revisit” its lead standards related to lead-based paint yet does not commit to lowering them to health-based levels. It also says there will be enough funding in the American Jobs Plan to replace every lead service line in America. But the draft also emphasizes the need for more research and study, suggesting that action is not imminent.

“It is long overdue for EPA to take a holistic approach to protect children and communities from lead exposure, such as by updating its outdated standards for lead in household paint and soil, and by regulating the largest source of lead emissions into the air, aviation gasoline,” said Jonathan Smith, senior attorney at Earthjustice. “This draft plan is disappointing because EPA does not commit to adopting health-based lead paint standards and makes no commitment at all about an endangerment finding for aviation gasoline, EPA’s first step to regulate leaded aviation gas.”

EPA treats lead as if it were solely a “legacy” concern. But lead is still emitted at alarming levels from steel mills, incinerators, battery recyclers, and other industrial sources. Piston-engine aircraft still use leaded aviation gas and produce some 70% of lead air pollution in the United States. Lead is also still used in a variety of consumer products but is only regulated in children’s products.

“EPA’s plan commits to being based in science, to centering equity concerns, and to strengthen enforcement; all of which would be a welcome change regarding EPA lead regulation. But EPA must explain how it intends to apply those principles when regulating lead in water,” said Julian Gonzalez, Earthjustice legislative counsel. “It should note how it plans to replace lead service lines regardless of what funding levels are allocated by Congress, or else another generation of children will be drinking lead-contaminated water.”

Lead contamination can be found in our homes and schools; in the air we breathe, and in the water, we drink. There is no safe level of lead exposure, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Even in small amounts, lead can cause irreversible brain damage in children, learning disabilities, and impaired hearing. About half a million children in the U.S. have levels of lead in their blood high enough to qualify as lead poisoning. Lead is dangerous for pregnant women and all adults, too.

Earthjustice and its clients have for years sued EPA to get a more protective lead standard for drinking water, and to replace lead pipes across the country. It also has won multiple lawsuits to improve rules related to lead paint hazards in homes, child-care facilities, and in the soil where children play. EPA still has not adopted health-based rules. Earthjustice has for years urged EPA to ban lead in gas piston-engine aircrafts. Earthjustice first sued on lead in gasoline in 2012, and this summer it filed a petition asking for an endangerment finding on so-called avgas.

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