WASHINGTON — The amount of lead that can be emitted into the air in the U.S. will be dramatically reduced under a new rule the Environmental Protection Agency announced on Thursday to protect the health of millions of Americans — especially children.
It was the first new rule on airborne lead in 30 years, and came in response to more than 6,000 scientific studies since 1990 that show that lead is dangerous to the human body at much lower levels than previously known.
The EPA was under a court order to complete its review for a new lead standard.
The studies have linked low levels of lead to damage to children's nervous systems that can lead to IQ loss, poor academic achievement and permanent learning disabilities, EPA administrator Stephen Johnson said in announcing the new standard. In adults, it can cause increased blood pressure and decreased kidney function.
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Children are especially vulnerable. Airborne lead can be inhaled, but also contaminates soil. The main way humans are exposed, however, is from ingesting tainted dirt or dust, as when children play in a polluted area and put their hands in their mouths.
The EPA last set a standard for lead at 1.5 micrograms per cubic meter of air in 1978. The new standard is 0.15 micrograms per cubic meter.
The new standard was in line with what EPA staff scientists and an independent body of science advisers said was necessary.
"Despite the dramatic decrease in environmental lead exposure, lead toxicity remains a major public health problem," the science advisory panel reported.
Emissions of lead into the air dropped by 97 percent since 1978, mainly because the government banned it in gasoline, Johnson said. But today more than 16,000 facilities such as smelters, cement factories and steel plants emit an estimated 1,300 tons of lead into the air annually.
"The new stronger standards address these remaining emissions and offer a shield to protect the health of our nation's children," Johnson said.
"They did a great job," said Gina Solomon of the Natural Resources Defense Council and a professor of medicine at the University of California at San Francisco, who pushed for the new lower standard.
But, she added, EPA must "greatly expand the lead monitoring network if they hope to enforce this new standard."
The new rule requires a monitor in areas with populations of 500,000 or more. The agency estimated it would need to add or relocate 236 monitors.
Solomon said more monitors were needed and that they should be placed downwind of the plants that emit large amounts of lead. She said that with fewer than 200 air lead monitors now in operation, "scientists don't even know how much lead is in the air in most communities."
Companies that recycle lead tried to head off the tightening of the standard. Several executives from battery recycling plants visited the White House on Oct. 2 to ask the EPA not to use its earlier proposed standard of a range from 0.1 to 0.3 micrograms of lead per cubic meter.
The Association of Battery Recyclers Inc. argued in a letter that there were "significant scientific uncertainties" about the risk of exposure to low levels of lead and that the benefits of standards the EPA proposed were "questionable." The group also warned that some battery recycling plants wouldn't be able to meet the new standard and would close.
The industry group said seven of its plants are equipped with systems that reduce lead, but only two of them could meet the proposed new standards.
Johnson said that under the Clean Air Act, the EPA must protect the health of Americans with an adequate margin of safety and cannot consider cost.
The scientists advising EPA listed more of the health costs of low-level exposure to lead in children, including Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, delinquency and criminal behavior. In adults, it's a risk factor for cardiovascular disease and kidney disease, and there's "compelling evidence" that it could increase the risk of death from stroke and heart attacks, it added.
About 310,000 children ages 1 to 5 in America have lead levels that require medical attention, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Lead poisoning can harm nearly every system in the body, but it often goes unrecognized because it can occur with no symptoms.
The case was filed by the Missouri Coalition for the Environment in the U.S. District Court in St. Louis in September 2005. The court extended the EPA's deadline twice, the second time to Wednesday. EPA's Johnson signed the new order late Wednesday.
Herculaneum, Mo., home of a Doe Run Co. smelter, is one of two places that don't meet the old airborne lead standard, although the company announced on Oct. 9 that its monitors showed it met it during the third quarter this year.
The other is East Helena, Mont., where an Asarco smelter was closed in 2001.
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