By Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 17, 2008
The Environmental Protection Agency yesterday tightened the regulatory limit on airborne lead for the first time in 30 years, lowering the legal maximum to a tenth of what it was on the grounds that it poses a more serious threat to young children than officials had realized.
The change, which was required under a court settlement, came despite a last-minute lobbying effort by battery recyclers to weaken the final rule. The suit was brought by the Missouri Coalition for the Environment.
In a conference call announcing the decision, EPA Administrator Stephen L. Johnson said he was lowering the current standard of 1.5 micrograms per cubic meter of air to 0.15 micrograms per cubic meter. That figure was in keeping with the recommendations of both the EPA staff and the agency's independent Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee, but the EPA's Children's Health Protection Advisory Committee had urged a sharply lower limit of 0.02 micrograms.
"America's air is cleaner today than just a generation ago," Johnson said. "And just last night I built upon this progress by signing the strongest air-quality standards for lead in our nation's history. . . . This action will improve public health, especially for children."
Environmentalists hailed the decision as a significant public health advance but questioned some aspects of the EPA's plans for measuring lead pollution under the new rule. The vast majority of airborne lead, a neurotoxin that reduces young children's IQ, comes from lead smelters. The lead in the air eventually falls to the ground, and most of children's exposure comes from indoor dust and soil.
Since 1990, 6,000 scientific studies have shown that young children suffer harm at much lower blood lead levels than was recognized when the old standard was set in 1978.
The American Academy of Pediatrics issued a statement yesterday praising the EPA for the new standard, adding, "There is no safe level of lead exposure for children."
"We commend EPA for taking a giant step in the right direction, but they need to greatly expand the lead-monitoring network if they hope to enforce this new standard," said Gina Solomon, a senior scientist with the advocacy group Natural Resources Defense Council. "However, this administration has dismantled half of the air-monitoring stations across the country. With less than 200 air lead monitors nationwide, scientists don't even know how much lead is in the air in most communities."
Johnson said the agency will expand its network to monitor any source that emits 1 ton of lead or more a year into the air, along with urban areas with populations of more than 500,000. According to sources who asked not to be identified discussing internal deliberations, some White House officials had pressed the EPA to scale back the monitoring so it would apply only to large population centers.
According to the EPA, there are 16,000 sources across the country emitting 1,300 tons of lead into the air each year.
In the United States, lead has been banned from gasoline and paint since the 1970s, and between 1980 and 2005, the average amount of lead in the air plummeted by nearly 97 percent. But the neurotoxin does not break down in the environment, and lead exposure is elevated in urban areas, especially in minority and low-income communities.
More than 300,000 American children display adverse effects from lead poisoning, and elevated lead exposure can result in increased blood pressure and decreased kidney function in adults.
Robert N. Steinwurtzel, counsel for the Association of Battery Recyclers, called the new federal requirement unrealistic and questioned how the industry would meet the stricter standard.
"It certainly threatens the viability of the industry at those numbers," Steinwurtzel said in an interview. "The problem is that many of the facilities have installed all known control technologies. . . . What else is there to be done? No one's identified any other known control technologies."
Still, the association has estimated that two of the nation's seven battery recycling facilities that are currently being monitored will be able to meet the new restrictions, which will take full effect in 2017. The Institute of Clean Air Companies, which represents pollution-control manufacturers, has said that it could work to apply technology currently used in other operations to battery recycling plants.
Johnson said he understands the pollution cuts will pose a challenge for some emitters but emphasized that the Clean Air Act compels him "to protect public health with an adequate margin of safety" without taking economic considerations into account.
"While I recognize that there are perhaps some who don't like the new standard I just set, I set it on the basis of science," he said. "It is a stronger standard, and now it will be left to everyone to make sure that standard is being met."
Environmental groups criticized Johnson's decision to measure lead pollution levels over three-month averages rather than the one-month averages the agency's scientific advisers recommended. Averaging the readings over three months, they said, would obscure spikes in pollution that could threaten children and adults.
Frank O'Donnell, who heads the public watchdog group Clean Air Watch, said "a three-month average would permit smelters and other lead polluters to belch high levels of lead periodically and still be considered legal. The monthly average recommended by EPA's science advisers would limit the belches."