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EPA Cuts Air Lead Limit by 90 Percent; First Time in 30 Years

Oct 17, 2008 | Parker Waichman LLP

The Associated Press (AP) is reporting that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is drastically reducing the amount of allowable lead in the air by 90 percent.  This is the first such update to the lead standard in 30 years.  Under the new rules, 16,000 smelters, metal mines, and waste incinerators will be required to reduce emissions.

EPA officials were under a federal court order to set a new lead health standard by midnight Wednesday and said the new limit would better protect health, especially children's, according to the AP.  "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," said Stephen Johnson, EPA administrator. "Thanks to this stronger standard, EPA will protect my children from remaining sources of airborne lead."  Meanwhile, much lead remains in the environment years after it first began being used and before its dangers were discovered.

The new lead limit of 0.15 micrograms per cubic meter is ten times lower than the current standard—1.5 micrograms—and is stricter than the level recommended in May by EPA’s scientific advisers, said the AP.  The AP noted that the Bush administration neither followed its own staff's advice nor that of its science advisers when setting new health standards for smog and soot that were less stringent than recommended.

Regarding the EPA’s move this week, environmentalists said they were pleased, but that the EPA will have to increase monitoring.  "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 standard," said Dr. Gina Solomon, a senior scientist with the Natural Resource Defense Council.   By October 2011, the EPA will designate areas of the country that do not meet the new standard, requiring state and local governments to find ways to reduce lead emissions, reports the AP, which added that based on air quality data collected from 2004-2006, at least 14 counties nationwide could be in violation of the new standard.

Exposure to lead in children and fetuses can cause brain and nervous system damage, behavioral and learning problems, slowed growth, hearing problems, headaches, mental and physical retardation, and behavioral and other health problems.  Lead is known to cause cancer and reproductive harm and, in adults, can damage the nervous system.  Once poisoned, no organ system is immune.    A major challenge with lead poisoning is recognizing its subtle symptoms and that no definitive indicators exist.  Children with lead poisoning may experience irritability, sleeplessness or excess lethargy, poor appetite, headaches, abdominal pain with or without vomiting—and generally without diarrhea—constipation, and changes in activity level.  Such a child can be iron deficient and pale because of anemia and can be either hyperactive or lethargic and may have lead lines on gingival tissue.  Lead poisoning in adults may appear as motor problems and increased depressive disorders, aggressive behavior, and other maladaptive affective disorders, as well as problems with sexual performance, impotence and infertility; increased fecal wastage and sleep disorders—over sleeping or experiencing problems falling asleep—may also be present.


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