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EPA ordered to act on lead to protect children’s health

Last week, thanks to our coalition partners WE ACT for Environmental Justice, Sierra Club, and Earthjustice, and others, a federal court ordered the U.S. EPA to update standards for lead in paint and dust to protect children’s health. The agency must propose the revised standards in 90 days, and finalize them a year after that, despite EPA’s arguments for a further delay.

Eve Gartner, an Earthjustice staff attorney who helped argue the case, stated: “This is going to protect the brains of thousands of children across the country . . . It’s going to mean that children that otherwise would have developed very elevated blood lead levels will be protected from the damage associated with that, assuming E.P.A. follows the court order.”

The court’s timeline may seem quick, but every day the current standards are in place, children remain at risk for lead poisoning. Moreover, without a court mandate, the agency planned to delay for at least six more years. It’s already been eight years since EPA agreed to update these standards, in what would be the first revision since they were established. EPA issued the dust-lead hazard standards in 2001 and adopted Congress’s definition of lead-based paint in 1996.

Advances in scientific research in the intervening years have shown us that children face harm even from low levels of exposure to lead. EPA’s 2001 dust-lead hazard standards are tied to what was previously thought to be the “level of concern” for lead in a child’s blood: 10 micrograms per deciliter (µg/dL). But in 2012, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) officially acknowledged that there is no safe level of lead in a child’s blood. CDC changed its recommendation on what level should trigger a public health response by cutting its level of concern in half and renaming it a reference level.

In our 2017 report, Children at Risk, we discussed the importance of regular blood testing to identify young children with elevated lead levels. This approach allows for earlier intervention to mitigate developmental damage, and identification and elimination of sources of exposure. Because it’s better to prevent the exposure in the first place, it’s crucial that EPA gets these dust and paint standards right.

The long road to the court’s decision began in 2009. A group of non-profit organizations including Sierra Club and Alliance for Healthy Homes petitioned EPA “to more adequately protect” children and update the standards for lead in paint and dust. EPA quickly agreed to issue a rule, and worked on the matter over the next several years, but a rule never materialized. To prompt action, WE ACT, Sierra Club, and others represented by Earthjustice petitioned the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals to direct EPA to finally update the standards as it promised years earlier.

We applaud our coalition partners for this critical achievement for children’s health. EPA’s standards are more than overdue for an update.