By Hannah Chang, Earthjustice
If a lead inspector came to your house and told you that your house paint was not lead-based and that your house dust isn’t a lead hazard, you’d think you and your family were definitely safe from exposure to lead in your home, right?
Well, you’d be wrong.
That’s because of a couple lines of text in outdated U.S. EPA regulations that define what constitutes a “dust-lead hazard” and what qualifies as “lead-based paint.” In both cases, the EPA’s standards fall far short of protecting human health.
Lead exposure, particularly during childhood, ruins the full potential of every life it touches. Lead affects virtually every system in the human body, but it is an especially potent neurotoxin. Even in small amounts, lead can have irreversible consequences for children, including diminished I.Q., learning disabilities, hyperactivity and impaired hearing. Lead exposure in children has been associated with an increased risk of school failure and attention-related behavior problems. And it’s well documented that lead exposure and poisoning disproportionately hurt low-income communities and communities of color.
In the case of the EPA’s lead dust standards, the agency’s benchmarks would result in 50 percent of children who live in homes that meet these standards developing blood lead levels above the threshold that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has identified as unsafe. In a policy statement on lead issued this past summer, the American Academy of Pediatrics flat out declared that the EPA’s dust-lead hazard standards are “obsolete.”
In the case of “lead-based paint,” the EPA’s definition is so out of touch that paint with almost ten times more lead than is contained in paint banned as hazardous since 1978—that’s during the Carter administration, people—is not considered lead-based by the agency.
The implications of these outdated and unprotective EPA standards are enormous.
The dust-lead hazard standards provide the basis for determining whether the lead in house dust poses a risk. Lead-based paint in homes disintegrates over time and contaminates dust throughout the home. The most common cause of lead poisoning in children in this country is the ingestion of household dust that contains lead from deteriorating lead-based paint. The EPA’s current standards result in inspections that fail to identify homes with dangerous levels of lead in the house dust. As a result, homeowners and landlords do not take measures to reduce lead in homes (lead abatement) that might otherwise be required, and the families living in those homes are and continue to be unknowingly exposed to lead.
Moreover, because the EPA regulations set the bar for successful lead abatement based on the dust-lead hazard standards, when lead abatement is done, it is done only to the level of these inadequate standards. That means that even after lead abatement, many homes still contain dangerous levels of lead.
The EPA’s definition of lead-based paint also has significant implications for homeowners and tenants. Under the EPA’s current regulations, it‘s possible for paint containing banned levels of lead and dust containing harmful levels of lead to be present in a home but to not be disclosed to the new seller or lessor. This lack of disclosure prevents the new owner or tenant from taking action to lower lead exposure in the home. It may result in situations where new owners do renovations and repairs without any protective work practices—thereby releasing tremendous amounts of lead—because they don’t know about the harmful lead-based paint in their homes.
This, then, is a matter of justice. It’s not right or just for the EPA to sit on its hands and fail to update standards that cause real, physical, lifelong harm to hundreds of thousands of children in this country. And it’s not right or just for the EPA to do this when it knows full well that “lead exposure remains one of the top childhood environmental health problems that impacts minority and/or low-[in]come populations.” Earthjustice is representing eight community and environmental groups around the country to push the EPA to do what is right, just, and long overdue: update its dust-lead hazard standards and its definition of lead-based paint.