New Regulation Cuts Allowable Lead in the Air Ten-Fold

Thursday, Jan 7, 2010  |  Updated 6:18 PM EDT
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WASHINGTON, DC, October 16, 2008 (ENS) - Today, for the first time in 30 years, the U.S. EPA strengthened the nation's air quality standards for lead, improving public health protection, especially for children, who are particularly vulnerable to lead poisoning.

Lead is a pollutant that can cause organ, brain and nerve damage, lower intelligence, suppress the immune system, cause high blood pressure and increase heart disease.

The major sources of lead emissions have been motor vehicles and lead smelters, waste incinerators, utilities, and lead-acid battery manufacturers.

The new standards reduce the allowable lead level 10 times to 0.15 micrograms of lead per cubic meter (ug/m3) of air.

The previous standards, set in 1978, were 1.5 micrograms of lead per cubic meter of air.

"America's air is cleaner than a generation ago," said EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson. "With these stronger standards a new generation of Americans are being protected from harmful lead emissions."

EPA strengthened the standards after a review of the science on lead, advice from the Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee, and consideration of public comments.

EPA's action sets two standards: a primary standard at 0.15 ug/m3 to protect health and a secondary standard at the same level to protect the public welfare, including the environment.

The EPA action results from a lawsuit filed four years ago by Leslie and Jack Warden, Missouri residents who sought to get the federal government to consider tougher standards for lead in the air.

The Wardens used to live in Herculaneum, which is near the nation's only primary lead smelter, run by the Doe Run Co. Many Herculaneum children have suffered from lead poisoning, and lead has contaminated yards and streets of the town.

The Wardens' lawsuit alleged, and a federal judge agreed, that the Clean Air Act requires the air quality standard for lead to be reviewed every five years, and the government had not done so. The EPA first set the standard in 1978 and it has not changed since.

The new air lead standard is only as strong as its enforcement, and concerns were expressed today that the EPA's monitoring capacity is not up to the job.

Bill Becker, executive director of the National Association of Clean Air Agencies, said, "We commend EPA for setting the primary and secondary lead standards at 0.15 micrograms per cubic meter, which is within the range recommended by the agency's science advisors on the Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee. However, we are disappointed that the rule has obstructed the public's ability to know whether the air they breathe is safe."

"By not requiring monitoring for hundreds of sources that emit large quantities of lead – ranging from lead battery recycling and disposal facilities to industrial boilers – the rule will deprive those living, working and going to school in the vicinity of these sources information that would reveal the true health risks to which they are exposed," Becker warned.

U.S. Senator Barbara Boxer, a California Democrat who chairs the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, said, "The revised air pollution standard announced today is an important step toward protecting our families from toxic lead exposure, but I have concerns about the EPA's monitoring plan and its failure to fully protect communities near dangerous sources."

"I will work to ensure that the standards as well as the monitoring program protect children from toxic lead pollution, since the science shows there is no safe level of exposure to lead," Boxer said.

Dr. Gina Solomon, senior scientist with the health program of the Natural Resources Defense Council is also concerned about monitoring the air for concentrations of lead.

"The EPA has followed the advice of its own advisers and public health advocates to set a more stringent standard for airborne lead," said Solomon, 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."

"EPA must place air monitors at the locations where they matter most - downwind of the big polluters," Solomon urged. "EPA's plan for only 236 new or relocated monitors is not adequate to detect problems, since there are thousands of serious lead polluters nationwide."

The EPA acknowledged today that the existing monitoring network for lead is not sufficient to determine whether many areas of the country would meet the revised standards.

The agency is redesigning the nation's lead monitoring network, which is necessary for the agency to assess compliance with the new standard.

No later than October 2011, EPA will designate areas that must take additional steps to reduce lead air emissions. States have five years to meet these new standards after designations take effect.

In the new regulation, the EPA changed the calculation method for the averaging time to use a "rolling" three month period with a maximum not-to-be-exceeded form, evaluated over a three-year period. This replaces the current approach of using calendar quarters.

But environmentalists warn that represents a loophole in the new standards through which lead can enter the environment.

"I am disappointed that EPA will allow averaging of lead exposures over a three-month period," Solomon said. "That means that large but brief 'spikes' of lead emissions from smelters and other polluters could contaminate the soil of playgrounds and backyards even in some areas that are in attainment of the new standard."

In 1973, the EPA issued regulations designed to gradually reduce the content of lead in leaded gasoline, because the agency found that lead particle emissions from motor vehicles presented a significant risk of harm to the health of people in cities, especially children.

By 1988, through a regulated phase out, including banking and trading of lead credits, the EPA estimated that total lead usage in gasoline had been reduced to less than one percent of the amount of lead used in the peak year of 1970.

The Clean Air Act prohibits the introduction of gasoline containing lead or lead additives into commerce for use as a motor vehicle fuel after December 31, 1995. But the petroleum industry has been permitted to continue to make and market gasoline produced with lead additives for all remaining uses, such as use in aircraft, racing cars, and nonroad engines such as farm equipment engines and marine engines.

As many as 16,000 industrial facilities in the United States have been operating under the old standard, pumping hundreds of thousands of pounds of lead into the air every year. The smelters that melt old batteries are among the worst lead polluters.

{Photo: Emissions escape from the stack at the Doe Run lead smelter in Herculaneum, Missouri. (Photo credit unknown)}

Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2008. All rights reserved.

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