After working to systematically roll back environmental protections nationwide, the Trump administration has announced plans to strengthen Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) standards that protect children from hazardous lead dust in aging homes and public housing units — but only after being sued by environmentalists and ordered to do so by a federal appeals court.
The EPA announced on Monday a proposal to strengthen its standards for lead dust on floors and windowsills for the first time since 2001. The number of children with elevated levels of lead in their blood has declined over the past two decades, thanks in part to the dust standards and rules removing lead from gasoline. However, the science around lead exposure has also evolved to show that the heavy metal can impact human health at lower levels than previously thought.
Lead is a potent neurotoxin, particularly in children. Even low levels of lead in the blood have been shown to affect a child’s ability to pay attention and perform well on tests. Lead dust tends to be a particular concern in older homes and public housing units built before 1978, when regulators began restricting the amount of lead in lead-based paints. More than 25 million older housing units across the United States contain lead paint, according to the environmental group Earthjustice.
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In 2016, the American Academy of Pediatrics said most of the EPA’s current lead paint and dust standards followed by regulators, federal housing officials and home renovators provide only “an illusion of safety” because the most recent science shows that there is no safe level of lead exposure for children.
The EPA’s announcement comes on the heels of two reports issued last week by federal watchdogs showing that the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) failed to protect thousands of children living in subsidized housing from potential exposure to lead dust and to properly respond to reports of childhood lead poisoning. Lead in aging public housing buildings has long been a nationwide concern, and the reports confirm that HUD’s programs for identifying and eliminating sources of lead lack proper oversight and transparency.
Despite the advances in the scientific understanding of lead exposure, advocates say the EPA dragged its feet on updating its dust standards for years. In 2009, the EPA granted a citizens’ petition to update its lead dust standards and agreed to initiate rulemaking proceedings. Years passed, and the EPA failed to set new standards.
In 2016, environmental justice groups filed a lawsuit against the EPA claiming the agency’s inaction was putting children in danger, particularly those living in public housing, low-income neighborhoods and communities of color. In such neighborhoods, direct lead exposure from paint chips and dust can be compounded by soil contaminated by lead left over from industrial facilities and cleanup sites, which are disproportionately placed near areas where people of color tend to live.
“In litigation, EPA insisted that its protracted timeline was perfectly reasonable and that it would need at least another six years to reach a final rulemaking,” said Hannah Chang, an attorney for Earthjustice who represented the eight organizations that filed the 2016 lawsuit. “Without the litigation and the court’s order, we’d still be faced with the prospect of this effectively indefinite delay.”
In December 2017, a the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ordered the EPA to propose a rule revising its 2001 standards for lead dust, nearly a decade after advocates for low-income children began petitioning the agency to update the rules. The court gave the EPA 90 days to roll out the proposal, which was finally unveiled on Friday.
Chang said she is happy that the EPA is finally moving to update its lead dust standards, but concerns remain over what concentrations of lead meet the agency’s definition of “lead-based paint.” Under current definitions, which the EPA has proposed to leave unchanged, it’s possible for paint with banned levels of lead to be present in a home but not disclosed to a new owner or lessor, according to Earthjustice.
“We’re pleased to see that EPA has issued the proposed rule in compliance with the court’s order in our case, but we are concerned, among other things, that the agency is not proposing to update the definition of lead-based paint,” Chang said. “The plaintiff groups will be taking a close look at the proposal and will be weighing in during the public comment period to ensure that the agency enacts standards that actually protect public health.”
The Trump administration is under mounting pressure to do something about lead exposure in homes and drinking water. As Truthout has reported, exposure to lead is a concern wherever lead pipes deliver drinking water, including schools nationwide. Four years after contamination from lead pipes caused a prolonged and painful crisis for residents in Flint, Michigan, officials in that state recently declared federal drinking water standards unsatisfactory and introduced their own plan for reducing lead contamination.
EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, whose tenure has been marred by scandals, said in a statement on Monday that “reducing childhood lead exposure [is] a top priority” for his agency. However, since taking office in 2017, Pruitt has worked diligently to advance President Trump’s agenda and roll back environmental protections on behalf of polluting industries.
In fact, in 2017 an executive order issued by President Trump required the EPA to consider gutting the lead dust standards it is now working to update as part of a broader deregulatory push. In a public hearing last July, representatives from construction and remodeling industries that are expected to adhere to the standards lined up to offer their comments, with many supporting the EPA’s current rules and training programs for removing lead dust hazards, if not calling for them to be strengthened, according to a transcript.