By Katie Schaefer, Sierra Club
The Flint water crisis brought national attention to a major public health injustice—childhood lead poisoning—after the city’s residents were exposed to toxic levels of lead through the mismanagement of their drinking water supply. But of course, “there are ‘Flints’ everywhere,” as Leslie Fields, the Sierra Club’s Director of Environmental Justice and Community Partnerships Program, reminds us. While lead exposure has dramatically reduced over the last three decades as a result of federal, state, and local regulatory efforts, that progress has not been realized equally across the United States, and lead exposure remains one of the top childhood environmental health problems in minority and low-income communities, like Flint and many others.
To address this problem, the Sierra Club, along with a coalition of environmental justice and healthy housing organizations, is calling on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to take action to strengthen its outdated lead-based paint regulations. Represented by Earthjustice, the Sierra Club, A Community Voice, California Communities Against Toxics, Healthy Homes Collaborative, New Jersey Citizen Action, New York City Coalition to End Lead Poisoning, WE ACT for Environmental Justice, and United Parents Against Lead filed a lawsuit arguing that EPA has unreasonably delayed updating these standards, seven years after it recognized that its existing standards fail to adequately protect public health.
Lead is a potent neurotoxin with no known safe level of human exposure. Children are especially vulnerable to harm from lead exposure, and in 2010 the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) estimated that half a million children under the age of five have enough lead in their blood to merit a doctor’s attention. These lead-poisoned children may suffer permanent brain damage that results in stunted growth, learning disorders, and behavior problems such as hyperactivity, impulsiveness, and violence. Indeed, scientists have demonstrated a link between childhood lead poisoning and crime rates later in life, explaining that for those children, “lead sowed the seeds of their future” (Chicago Tribune, “Studies link childhood exposure, violent crime”).
Lead paint is the primary source of childhood lead poisoning, and although lead has not been used in household paint since the federal government banned its use in 1978, it is still present in many older buildings—an estimated 37 million homes across the country. Lead poisoning occurs when children are exposed to cracking and peeling paint or when they inhale dust from renovation activities that disturb old lead-based paint.
While lead poisoning crosses all socioeconomic, geographic, and racial boundaries, the burden of this epidemic falls disproportionately on communities of color and low-income communities, which are more likely to live in older and poorly maintained housing that contains high levels of lead paint and dust. Indeed, children in low-income households are three times more likely, and African-American children are twice as likely as white children, to have elevated blood lead levels, according to CDC data.
Recognizing the dangers associated with lead exposure in the home, Congress directed EPA, under the Toxic Substances Control Act, to issue health-based standards for lead hazards by 1994. In 2001, EPA finally issued the long-overdue rule, which established three types of lead-hazard standards—paint, dust, and soil—and requires contractors to use lead-safe work practices when renovating and painting homes and child-occupied facilities, like child care centers. Critically, the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) references these standards in its own lead-safe housing regulations to protect residents of federally subsidized housing. Thus HUD’s standards for evaluating whether a lead hazard may be present, controlling or eliminating the hazard, and notifying occupants of public housing are all directly tied to EPA’s standards. Many cities and states similarly rely on EPA’s lead-hazard standards in their own laws, so strengthening EPA’s standards would also strengthen local disclosure and lead-abatement obligations.
In 2009, the Sierra Club and several environmental and children’s advocacy groups petitioned EPA to revise the rule to better protect the public from lead poisoning. Specifically, we asked EPA to reduce the dust-lead hazard standard to reflect the current science and to change the definition of lead-based paint from containing more than 5,000 parts per million (ppm) lead to at most 600 ppm, the level Congress set in 1978 as the maximum allowable level of lead in paint. Under the current definition, if an inspector documents levels of less than 5,000 ppm, the buyers or tenants would be told that lead-based paint is not present in their homes and therefore would not have sufficient information to take the steps necessary to protect their families from what could actually be harmful levels of lead in their home. EPA granted our petition, conceding that the standards may not be sufficiently protective. Since then, the agency has made little progress toward revising the standards.
Seven years ago, when EPA granted our petition, it acknowledged that “[l]ead poisoning prevention is a priority for EPA.” Today, EPA has reinforced that commitment in its draft environmental justice strategic plan for 2016–2020, which declares that eliminating childhood lead disparities is one of the agency’s top three goals. Yet EPA has so far failed to update its outdated lead-hazard standards, leaving children across the country—and particularly in communities of color and low-income communities—at risk in their homes and child care centers. The Sierra Club and our allies’ action now asks the court to set deadlines for EPA to make progress on a new rulemaking, a crucial step to address lead poisoning in this country.