updated 5/11/2005 10:00:50 AM ET 2005-05-11T14:00:50

After working for nearly a decade on regulations to protect children and construction workers from exposure to lead paint, the Environmental Protection Agency has decided instead to ask companies engaged in home renovation and remodeling to adopt protective practices voluntarily.

Until last year, EPA was looking at making contractors certify that workers are trained to protect themselves against lead contamination. It also was considering regulations to minimize hazards from lead-based paint in renovated homes, commercial property and public buildings constructed before 1978 — a year after the government banned the sale of lead-based paint.

Under a 1992 law, EPA was to have issued new regulations governing renovation or remodeling involving tearing out ceilings, walls and other fixtures covered with lead-based paint. However, the Clinton administration never issued the regulations.

The Bush administration decided last year to try voluntary measures at the urging of Stephen Johnson, then deputy administrator and now head of EPA, according to internal agency briefings obtained by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, an advocacy group.

PEER said Johnson made the decision despite EPA analyses showing regulations would have a net economic benefit of at least $2.73 billion a year, at an average cost to homeowners of $116 per interior renovation and $42 for exterior work.

About 1.4 million children under the age of 7 in 4.9 million households are at risk of lead exposure due to unsafe repair and renovations, according to the agency’s analyses.

Five Democrats in Congress this week asked Johnson to take the regulatory proposals off the shelf and try again.

“EPA’s actions do not comply with the law, and they utterly fail to protect our children from a toxic substance that can cause severe developmental damage,” they wrote. The letter was sent by Rep. Henry Waxman and Sen. Barbara Boxer of California, Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois and Reps. Stephen Lynch of Massachusetts and Ed Towns of New York.

EPA officials say they might still issue mandatory regulations but have been looking at voluntary alternatives that could be less expensive for households and industry.

“Both options are still on the table,” EPA spokeswoman Eryn Witcher said Tuesday. “EPA and the federal government are committed to eliminating childhood lead poisoning in the United States by 2010, and we are continuing efforts to protect children from the hazards associated with lead-based paint.”

Last month, two Democratic state attorney generals, Eliot Spitzer of New York and Lisa Madigan of Illinois, also wrote Johnson in protest. Spitzer said EPA’s action “presents a significant and avoidable threat to tenants and homeowners throughout the nation.” Madigan said her state each year reports the highest number of lead-poisoned children in the nation.

“Unless EPA’s leadership is restored, the 2010 goal of protecting all children from lead poisoning will remain beyond reach,” Madigan said.

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