New EPA Standards Would Cut Amount Of Lead in the Air

By Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 2, 2008

The Environmental Protection Agency yesterday proposed tightening the federal limits for lead in the air, but the proposal fell short of what its own scientists said is required to protect public health.

Lead, which is emitted by smelters, mining, aviation fuel and waste incinerators, can enter the bloodstream and affect young children's development and IQ, as well as cause cardiovascular, blood pressure and kidney problems in adults. The United States has not changed its atmospheric lead standards in 30 years, but the Bush administration is under a court order to issue new rules by September.

U.S. emissions of lead have dropped from 74,000 tons a year three decades ago to 1,300 tons a year now, largely because leaded gasoline was taken off the market. Since 1990, however, more than 6,000 studies have examined the impact of lead on public health and the environment and have revealed that it has harmful effects at lower concentrations than previously thought.

In a conference call with reporters yesterday, EPA Deputy Administrator Marcus C. Peacock announced that the agency is proposing to cut the current standard of 1.5 micrograms of lead per cubic meter of air to a range of between 0.10 and 0.30 micrograms per cubic meter.

"We are writing the next chapter in America's clean air story," Peacock said, adding the new standard would be "up to 93 percent stronger than the current standard."

Environmentalists criticized the administration for proposing a range of lead levels that exceeds what an independent scientific advisory panel and the EPA's scientific staff identified as the maximum amount of lead that should be in the air. Both groups said the new standard should not exceed 0.20 micrograms of lead per cubic meter of air, and EPA staff members said it could be set as low as 0.02 micrograms.

The two groups also recommended that the agency average lead emissions from any given source over a single month, rather than over three months, as EPA officials proposed yesterday.

Avinash Kar, an attorney for the advocacy group Natural Resources Defense Council, called the rule "a flawed proposal" even though it is "moving in the right direction."

"According to EPA projections, emissions of 60 pounds of lead from a single pollution source could cause a median loss of up to three IQ points in children," Kar said. "Thousands of children across the United States live near lead plants emitting more than 60 pounds of lead every year. In fact, some plants emit tons of lead annually."

Frank O'Donnell, who heads the advocacy group Clean Air Watch, said the agency engaged in "statistical trickery" by providing a range of possible lead limits and lengthening the period over which polluters could average the amount of lead they put into the air.

But Rogene Henderson, who chairs the independent air advisory committee, said she was pleased with EPA's decision. "They heard us," she said.

Robert J. Meyers, principal deputy assistant administrator at the EPA's Office of Air and Radiation, said officials tried to "tease out" how much of the lead in the air comes from atmospheric emissions, as opposed to the lead in pipes, paint and other sources. Adults and children inhale lead from the air, which then works its way into the bloodstream from the lungs, but people can also ingest lead that has been deposited in the soil or on surfaces in the home.

The EPA estimates that the proposed rule would apply to 16,000 sources of lead nationwide and, depending on what standard is eventually adopted, between 12 and 23 U.S. counties would fail to meet the stricter standards.

Jeffrey R. Holmstead, who directed the EPA's office of air and radiation from 2001 to 2005 and now heads the environmental strategies group at the law firm Bracewell & Giuliani, said the 60-day comment period on the rule that will start once it is published in the Federal Register "will be even more important than usual."

"Most people thought the lead issue had been solved, and it's only recently that people have begun to focus on it," he said in an interview. "They're really taking comment on a broad range here."

The agency is also soliciting comments on setting the standard higher or lower than the proposed range, up to 0.50 micrograms per cubic meter of air.

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