Trump administration to unveil strategy for fighting lead exposure

The Trump administration is planning next week to roll out a formal, multiagency strategy to fight exposure to lead.

Acting Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) chief Andrew Wheeler told The Hill Friday that he will unveil the strategy Wednesday alongside Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben CarsonBenjamin (Ben) Solomon CarsonYes, President Trump, we do have a homelessness crisis and you're making it harder for us to address New HUD rule would eliminate housing stability for thousands of students Carson defends transgender comments, hits media for 'mischaracterizations' MORE.

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Wheeler didn’t divulge details about the plan, but it is expected to be a general strategy, not a regulatory proposal itself. It is the result of nearly a year of work by the EPA, Department of Health and Human Services and 15 other federal agencies.

“This is going to be, I think, a very welcomed report that we have to show what the federal government is going to be doing on lead,” he said. “And I think it is going to be received very well. I’m hopeful.”

Wheeler said he had planned to have the plan out by October, but the interagency review process took longer than he expected.

As part of the EPA’s contribution toward the administration-wide effort, the agency has been working on a regulation to potentially crack down on lead in drinking water pipes. It also proposed in June to crack down on lead content in the dust from old paints after a federal court admonished the agency for not taking action on clear scientific concerns.

The Lead and Copper Rule, the EPA’s regulation dictating how water utilities must work to reduce corrosion, was written in 1991 and has not been significantly revised since then. The EPA said in October that it would put out a proposal to revise the rule in February 2019.

Erik Olson, senior director for health and food at the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), said there are numerous ways the Trump administration could fight lead, like taking lead out of aircraft fuels and certain outdoor paints, strengthening rules for cleaning up lead contamination and new standards for lead in food.

"There are a variety of uses of lead that still have not been restricted," he said. "If they wanted to be aggressive, they could address each one of those major sources."

But he doubts the strategy will go that far.

"What am I expecting, just knowing this group, many of whom have very close ties and come from the industries they’re regulating? Our expectations are extremely low."

Olson said there are other troubling signs for his group, including that the administration has largely developed the strategy behind closed doors and that the EPA earlier this year suspended Dr. Ruth Etzel, the head of the children's health office. Etzel has alleged that she was removed in part because of her advocacy for strong lead regulation. The EPA has said her suspension did not have to do with policy.

If the lead strategy lays out plans for new regulations, it would go against the EPA’s trend under the Trump administration of repealing or easing rules instead of adding them.

In early 2018, former EPA Administrator Scott PruittEdward (Scott) Scott PruittSierra Club sues EPA over claim that climate change 'is 50 to 75 years out' EPA on 'forever chemicals': Let them drink polluted water EPA moving ahead with science transparency rule by 'early next year' MORE started speaking of a “war on lead,” which includes the drinking water rule. He convened a task force of leaders from across the government, though the group did not hold meetings open to the public.

Lead is highly poisonous when consumed or inhaled. Its effects are strongest among children, where it can inhibit brain and neurological development, causing impacts that last throughout a child’s life.

Lead exposure has taken center stage in recent years due to the Flint, Mich., drinking water crisis, in which improper water treatment caused the city’s lead pipes to corrode, putting lead into the water.

Since then, lead has been found in elevated levels in water elsewhere, including Newark, N.J.

--Updated at 12:40 p.m.