Environmental justice and public health groups are demanding that the federal government update regulations and expand efforts to protect young children from lead poisoning, which can cause irreversible cognitive and behavioral problems and tends to be more common in low-income neighborhoods and communities of color.
In a lawsuit filed on Wednesday, a coalition of groups asked a federal court in California to mandate that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) update its standards for assessing dangerous levels of lead dust on surfaces in homes and residential buildings, especially those built before 1978, when regulators began restricting the amount of lead in lead-based paints.
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In 2009, the EPA granted a citizens’ petition to update its lead dust standards and agreed to initiate rulemaking proceedings, after new scientific evidence showed that existing standards were inadequate for protecting children from lead poisoning. However, seven years have passed and the agency has yet to set new rules.
“EPA’s outdated standards and lack of enforcement let lead remain hidden and silent, causing irreversible brain damage, learning disabilities and reduced IQ in children,” said Queen Zakia Rafiqa Shabazz, mother of a son with lead poisoning and founder of United Parents Against Lead, in a statement. “We as parents want to protect our children but we can do little against an invisible enemy. A child is a terrible thing to waste.”
In a recent report, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) said the EPA’s current standards provide only “an illusion of safety.” The group said that most existing lead paint standards used by regulators, federal housing officials and home renovators fail to protect children because, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) most recent findings, there is no safe level of lead exposure for children.
In a brief statement in response to questions from Truthout, the EPA said it would “review the lawsuit and respond.”
The AAP also recommended that the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) expand the resources it provides for controlling lead hazards and develop new protocols for public health offices across the country.
Fully addressing the problem of lead will also require a new level of diligence among contractors repairing aging houses. The most common cause of lead poisoning in children is lead dust from deteriorating lead-based paint, which can be found on household surfaces after renovations and repairs. Linda Kite, the executive director of the Healthy Housing Initiative in Los Angeles, told Truthout that establishing stricter EPA standards for the amount of lead dust considered safe on floors and other services would require contractors to be more conscientious about cleaning up lead dust before finishing a job.
“These standards will require contractors to clean up lead and clean up their act,” Kite said. “This is completely preventable, it’s clear cut, it’s lead dust, it goes up their nose or into their mouths and that’s how [children] are poisoned.”
In particular, the EPA’s standards impact public housing units: HUD and environmental and public health agencies rely on the standards in crafting local regulations and evaluating lead contamination in public housing.
Of course, housing-based lead dust is not the only route to poisoning. Children are also exposed to lead in contaminated soil and water, and recent high-profile cases of lead contamination have brought national attention to the problem. The contamination of the municipal water supply in Flint, Michigan earlier this year is perhaps the most well-known case.
Meanwhile, in May, the community of East Chicago, Indiana, found out that the EPA had discovered dangerous levels of lead contamination leftover from industrial plants that closed years ago, in soil around a public housing complex and an elementary school back in 2009. The agency did not notify residents of the dangers until May of this year.
“Somebody dropped the ball somewhere,” said Lonnie Randolph, a state legislator from East Chicago in a recent interview with the Associated Press.
Kite said that when the EPA first established its lead dust standards for household surfaces, such as floors and window sills in 2001, the population of the United States as a whole had higher levels of lead in its blood. Since then, public health policies, such as mandates to remove lead from gasoline, have drastically decreased lead exposure across the general population and shifted metrics for researchers.
Until recently, children were thought to have lead in their blood at a “level of concern” if test results showed a concentration of 10 or more micrograms per deciliter, according to the AAP. New research shows that problems — including inattention, impulsivity, aggression and hyperactivity, as well as lower IQ scores and academic performance — begin at levels of less than half that amount.
In light of this research, the EPA must reduce the acceptable level of lead dust left on floors following a construction project by at least four times, according Kite and the AAP.
In Los Angeles, Kite’s organization often identifies “pockets” in neighborhoods where children have higher levels of lead in their blood, especially in low-income neighborhoods where buildings are old and most residents are renters with little control over their living conditions. Kite said families that attempt to hold contractors and landlords accountable for lead dust contamination often find eviction notices on their front doors.
“I’m a single mom and I don’t want you poisoning my baby, so now I’m getting kicked out of my house,” Kite said, referring to families that her organization works with on a daily basis.
In such neighborhoods, direct lead exposure can be compounded by soil contaminated by lead leftover from industrial facilities and cleanup sites, which are disproportionately placed near areas where low-income and communities of color live.
Kite said lead exposure can also be a problem in middle-income neighborhoods, where young families often buy old homes and attempt to fix them up on their own, without realizing that dust created by repairs and paint scraping can poison their own children if they fail to clean up properly.
“This is not the way to find out about lead,” Kite said.
Kite said that although convincing the EPA to update its standards would be a start, it is not a fix-all. Contractors must take responsibility for cleaning up their worksites and local public health officials and building inspectors must be diligent about issuing violations when necessary. A sheer lack of affordable housing in cities, such as Los Angeles, often forces low-income people into homes and residential buildings with high levels of lead, so fighting for housing justice is also crucial to eliminating lead poisoning.
“In Los Angeles County we know that 99 percent of cases of lead-poisoned children are from old housing and the surrounding contaminated soil,” Kite said. “Revising the dust standards is a critical step in primary prevention and will tackle this problem efficiently.”