Criticisms of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) are regular fodder this political season. Generally the criticisms include virulent complaints by political candidates that the EPA has gone too far and has exceeded its authority to regulate climate change or overreached to protect the country’s air and water.
But my concern is that EPA hasn’t gone far enough to protect the health of children across the country. How? EPA is failing to take action to protect children living in dangerously contaminated places from harmful exposures to lead.
Lead is a contaminant that occurs naturally, but is also a dangerous pollutant that was left behind at hundreds of industrial sites across the U.S. after manufacturing operations stopped in the last century. Mining and smelters where lead and other heavy metals were burned are now contaminated sites in the middle of towns where children are regularly exposed to lead in yards, parks, playgrounds and ball fields.
There is no real question that exposure to lead is harmful, especially to children. Scientific evidence overwhelmingly shows that childhood exposures to lead affect brain development and cognitive function, resulting in lower IQs, attention-related behaviors, lower levels of academic achievement, and even violent tendencies. And, unfortunately, scientists now know that even very low levels of exposure to lead can cause these harms to children.
In response to growing evidence of harm to children at even low levels of lead exposure, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) convened a panel of scientists to determine what level of lead can be considered safe. The conclusions of the CDC’s panel of experts (the Work Group of the Advisory Committee on Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention) was stunning: there is no safe level of lead exposure — as measured in childhood blood lead levels — and the harmful effects of lead exposure for children are irreversible.
The CDC acted less than 6 months after the experts’ report was published and cut in half the level of lead in children’s blood that requires some kind of action to protect children’s health.
What has EPA done? Essentially nothing. Now, three and a half years after the CDC changed the lead standard to protect children’s health, EPA has not adopted the CDC’s lead standard and, shockingly, recently said it needs six to 12 more months before it will be ready to do anything.
In the meantime, contaminated sites all over the country are still being cleaned up using the old standard — which the CDC says is not good enough to protect children living nearby. In just the past few months, EPA has announced plans to clean up some of the most contaminated sites where lead is a hazardous pollutant in Illinois, Utah, Indiana, and Montana. But EPA will continue to use the old lead standard in all of these places and children who live there will continue to be exposed — even after clean up — to levels of lead that threaten their health.
Making matters worse, lead is often only one of several heavy metal contaminants, including arsenic, cadmium, and zinc, to which children at contaminated sites are exposed. And, families living in such communities are often low-income and lack the resources and knowledge to protect themselves from the dangers lead and other contaminants in their communities pose.
So why hasn’t EPA acted to protect children’s health? For three years EPA has been revising a model it uses to determine how much lead will actually end up in children’s blood. But that model isn’t the real issue. What matters is the standard EPA uses for clean ups at contaminated sites and EPA can readily change that today.
It’s time for EPA to adopt the CDC’s standard for childhood lead exposure and adequately protect children from the devastating harms they currently face. The CDC and scientists must draw attention to EPA’s inaction and call for EPA to adopt the CDC lead standard. Until EPA does, its clean-ups will not go far enough and children’s health will not be adequately protected.
Loeb is an assistant clinical professor of Law and the director of the Environmental Advocacy Clinic at Northwestern University Law School’s Bluhm Legal. She is an OpEd Project Public Voices fellow.