The Environmental Protection Agency announced yesterday that it plans to adopt a more stringent health standard for airborne lead to protect children.
Under the long-awaited proposal, the amount of lead allowed in the air would be drastically lower than the current limit, which was adopted 30 years ago. Nationally, airborne lead has dropped nearly 98 percent since the original standard prompted phasing out leaded gasoline.
Inhaling or ingesting small amounts can damage the developing nervous system, reducing children's IQs and causing learning disabilities and behavior problems. Since the original standard was adopted, scientific studies have shown that children's brains are altered at much lower levels of lead in the bloodstream than previously thought.
Only one place in the United States - Herculaneum, Mo., which has the nation's last remaining lead smelter - had readings last year that violated the current standard for lead. Under the EPA's new proposal, up to 23 counties in the Northeast, Southeast, Midwest and West could be thrown out of compliance, which means local officials would have to adopt new regulations for smelters, foundries, mines and other industries.
Two years ago, the EPA was under fire from environmentalists and some members of Congress for including in its review the option of eliminating the lead standard. A coalition of U.S. battery makers had urged the agency to remove lead from its list of air pollutants.
But in a November report, EPA staff members recommended against that option and told agency officials that they should set a much more stringent standard to protect children.
EPA Administrator Stephen L. Johnson agreed, proposing yesterday to set a standard of 0.10 to 0.30 micrograms of lead per cubic meter of air. The current standard is 1.5 micrograms.
The new proposal is "up to 93 percent stronger" than the current standard, said Marcus Peacock, the EPA's deputy administrator.
The EPA is under a court order to issue a new standard by September. The agency will hold hearings on its proposal June 12 in St. Louis and Baltimore.
Environmentalists remain concerned that the upper limit under consideration is more lax than what the EPA's scientific advisers recommended. The scientists had said the standard should be no weaker than 0.20 micrograms.
The proposal "is generally a step in the right direction, but it is still flawed," said Avinash Kar, an attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council. "This new standard doesn't go far enough."
About 16,000 industrial sources release a total of about 1,300 tons of lead into the air each year, the EPA said.
Under the Clean Air Act, the EPA is required every five years to review health standards for six major air pollutants, including lead. But the agency repeatedly missed its deadlines, and environmental groups in Missouri sued, winning a court order that required a proposal by yesterday.