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EPA must act on lead exposure that has poisoned Americans for too long

EPA must act on lead exposure that has poisoned Americans for too long
© Greg Nash

On May 14, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit reaffirmed what Congress told EPA almost three decades ago: EPA must update its standards so that children are safe from the irreversible harms of lead found in household paint, dust and soil. Since Congress first directed EPA to set these standards, the agency has failed to do what is right time and time again. This time it must be different.  

EPA’s most recent, inadequate update came 10 years after it promised to update the standards. The agency dragged its feet despite growing evidence over the course of decades that there is no safe level of lead exposure, and that even low levels of lead can cause irreversible harms to the developing brains of children. The inclusion of lead in products like paint and gasoline has likely caused the largest mass poisoning in history. We are yet to seriously deal with this problem, and we have no choice but to be suspicious of the EPA, which haphazardly updated standards only after repeated lawsuits from Earthjustice and its clients.  

Lead has been banned in some products and that helped reduce the worst cases of lead poisoning in the country. But legacy lead remains in paint and dust in pre-1978 homes and in soil from coast to coast. And lead is still permitted in many products, such as aviation gasoline and paint not intended for residential use. What we see now is that lead exposure causes over 400,000 deaths and the collective loss of 23 million IQ points in American children younger than six. Lead is found in the blood of all U.S. children, but Black children have the highest body burden.  

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In fact, most of the harms from lead occur at the lower levels of exposure, levels that were erroneously considered safe as recently as a decade ago. Up to 80 percent of IQ loss from lead occurs in children with exposure below the current Centers for Disease Control reference level. This harm goes largely unaddressed in current lead poisoning prevention efforts, which typically intervene only for children with the highest level of exposure, and only after most of the irreversible harm has already been done.  

That is why it is critical for EPA to update its paint, dust, and soil standards. The recent ruling directed EPA to set standards at levels “aimed at eliminating health risks,” and not at the less protective levels that EPA “wishes to enforce.” Now, EPA has a judicial directive to eliminate even the lowest harmful levels of lead so that children are spared from the detrimental effects. 

EPA must act swiftly to update these standards. EPA has used supposed scientific uncertainty to justify its delay, but the court held that EPA “cannot rely on uncertainty as an excuse for inaction.” And EPA’s claims about uncertainty are unfounded: lead is one of the most widely studied environmental toxicants, and numerous studies already provide EPA with the information it needs to determine what levels of lead in paint, dust, and soil are dangerous. 

Implementing EPA’s standards and eliminating the scourge of lead hazards in our homes will take years of effort. But EPA’s task in setting the standards in the first place need not take long. EPA has all the data it needs to update its lead standards now and take the first necessary step towards eliminating lead from our environment and our children’s bodies, once and for all. 

Dr. Bruce Lanphear is a health sciences professor at Simon Fraser University and founding principal investigator for a study examining fetal and early childhood exposures to prevalent toxic chemicals including lead, pesticides, mercury, PFAS (polyfluoroalkyl substances) chemicals and environmental tobacco smoke. 

Jonathan J. Smith is a senior attorney in the Community Partnerships Program at Earthjustice.