Image: Sign warning about lead hazards
Charlie Riedel  /  AP
Sources of airborne lead in the United States have included mines such as one that used to operate near Picher, Okla. This sign reminds residents of lead hazards from the mine, which is now a Superfund site.
msnbc.com staff and news service reports
updated 10/16/2008 5:37:37 PM ET 2008-10-16T21:37:37

Faced with a court order to set a new standard, the Environmental Protection Agency on Thursday announced it would order industry to slash the amount of lead allowed in the nation's air by 90 percent.

EPA officials said the new limit would better protect public health, especially that of children.

"Our nation's air is cleaner today than just a generation ago, and last night I built upon this progress by signing the strongest air quality standards for lead in our nation's history," Stephen Johnson, the EPA administrator, said Thursday. "Thanks to this stronger standard, EPA will protect my children from remaining sources of airborne lead."

The new limit — 0.15 micrograms per cubic meter — is the first update to the lead standard since 1978, when leaded gasoline was phased out. That is 10 times lower than the previous standard, which was 1.5 micrograms per cubic meter.

The new standard will require that the 16,000 remaining sources of lead — including smelters, metal mines, and waste incinerators — to slash their emissions.

"More than 6,000 studies since 1990 have examined the effects of lead on health and the environment," the EPA noted in a statement, "Some studies have linked exposure to low levels of lead with damage to children's development, including IQ loss."

A representative for the Association of Battery Recyclers said the new standard would be difficult to meet. Several members of the group, which represents 14 facilities that recycle lead from car batteries, met on Oct. 2nd with the White House and EPA. They were hoping for a higher standard.

"We have put in the best controls and we are going to still have compliance problems," said Robert Steinwurtzel, an attorney for the group. "We explained to them our concerns that if the standard was promulgated at lower end of EPA's range it would threaten viability of industry."

EPA took experts' advice
Environmentalists hailed the move, but said the agency could have done more to monitor emissions to ensure that the standard is met. Along with the announcement of a new standard, EPA said it would require lead to be measured in 101 cities across the country, and near sources that release at least one ton of lead per year. Advocates said Thursday that EPA's plan would exclude hundreds of sources 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," Gina Solomon, a health expert at the Natural Resources Defense Council, said in a statement.

In contrast, the Bush administration did not follow its own staff’s advice or its science advisers when it set new health standards for smog and soot that were less stringent than recommended.

Solomon also noted, however, that the EPA only has half as many monitoring stations as it used to have. "With less than 200 air lead monitors nationwide, scientists don't even know how much lead is in the air in most communities," she said. "Now that the EPA has recognized the severity of lead exposure, it must rebuild the monitoring network."

"EPA must place air monitors at the locations where they matter most — downwind of the big polluters," she added. "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."

Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif. and chair of the Senate environment committee, shared that view. "I have concerns about the EPA’s monitoring plan and its failure to fully protect communities near dangerous sources," she said in a statement. "I will work to ensure that the standards as well as the monitoring program protect children from toxic lead pollution."

The NRDC was also concerned that the EPA will allow companies to average lead exposures over a three-month period. "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," Solomon said.

Lawsuit led to action
The EPA acted after a lawsuit brought by the Missouri Coalition for the Environment led a federal court in 2004 to order a review of the lead standard.

The group sued on behalf of two former residents of Herculaneum, Mo., the home of the last lead smelter in the U.S. The smelter has repeatedly violated the older health standard for lead in recent years, and blood taken from children in the area in 2002 showed elevated concentrations of the toxic metal.

The court later directed the EPA to issue its final rule by midnight Wednesday.

The lawsuit charged that the EPA had failed to review the lead standard every five years as law requires. Since 1990, more than 6,000 studies have examined the effects of lead on health and the environment, according to the agency.

"They still have to enforce it," said Kathleen Logan Smith, executive director of the coalition. "But it is there. It is a start."

No later than October 2011, EPA will designate areas of the country that fail to meet the new standard, requiring state and local governments to find ways to reduce lead emissions.

Based on air quality data from collected from 2005-2007, 18 counties in Alabama, Colorado, Florida, Illinois, Indiana, Minnesota, Missouri, New Jersey, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Tennessee and Texas would fail to meet the standard.

EPA said the cost of the reductions would be between $150 million to $2.8 billion, but the standard would produce economic benefits of approximately $3.7 billion to $6.9 billion. EPA assumed that children would be smarter and earn more money as a result of less lead in the air when it calculated the benefits.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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