Acceptable Levels of Lead Poisoning?
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) supposedly helps protect the
environment, especially from toxins that endanger human health. But maybe not.
Lead activists from across the country charge that the federal agency is missing
the chance to reduce exposure to lead in paint and is actually undermining existing
standards of safety.
At issue is the EPA's proposed "Lead Safe Work Requirements to Protect
Children during Renovation, Repair and Painting." Blood lead levels of
many children have increased after remodeling homes built before 1978 (when
lead was banned from paint). Disturbing lead-based paint can release dust in
lead or fumes.
Thus, Section 402 of the Toxics Substance Control Act of 1992 required the
EPA to draft standards for home repairs that would minimize exposure to lead.
Though Congress instructed the EPA to compile rules for lead safe practices
by 1996, the agency failed to act for nearly 10 years. After being threatened
with a lawsuit and receiving a warning from Senator Barak Obama, the EPA finally
published a proposed rule on lead hazards on January 10, 2006.
The 10 year tardy proposal is silent on major issues that affect childhood
health. According to the Sierra Club's Ed Hopkins, "EPA's rule ignores
14,200 child care centers that have significant lead-based paint hazards."
These centers care for 470,000 children.
Additionally, the proposed rule says nothing concerning dangerous work practices
on building exteriors. This is important for children's health because practices
such as sandblasting on building exteriors can spread lead dust in streets,
schoolyards and playgrounds.
It remains unclear whether lack of attention to these areas is a blessing in
disguise, since so much of the EPA proposal could prove harmful. A storm of
controversy is brewing over how to determine if home renovation has created
a lead hazard.
For years, the accepted method for measuring the degree of lead danger in buildings
has been "dust wipe samples." A cloth is used to wipe dust from key
areas of a house and it is then sent for laboratory analysis. Multiple studies
have confirmed that the amount of lead in dust wipes correlates with blood lead
levels of children living in the homes. The more lead dust there is on the cloth,
the more lead poisoned the children are.
EPA's proposed rule would toss out this tried and scientifically accepted method.
And what would replace it? The EPA hopes to initiate its own "white glove
methodology," which Rebecca Morley of the National Center for Healthy Housing
(NCHH) calls "baby wipes on a mop." The white glove method involves
wiping windowsills and floors with white disposable cleaning cloths and then
looking to see if dust is visible on the cloth.
Both the dust wipe and white glove test gather dust on cloth. The major difference
is that dust wipes are sent to a lab for analysis and the EPA proposes training
inspectors to make a visual determination of the presence of lead from a white
It's not hard to figure out that a chemical analysis from a lab is more accurate
than a person eyeballing a cloth. In fact, lead research demonstrates conclusively
that visual examinations are insufficient to determine the quantity of invisible
lead dust present. A 2002 NCHH study found that 54% of housing units passed
a visual lead test but failed clearance levels for lead.
When the EPA developed the white glove test, it only collected data on bare
floors. Consequently, the EPA specifies that the white glove test would only
be used on bare floors and that carpeted rooms would only require a visual inspection
for the presence of lead.
Visual inspections for lead are notoriously unreliable, with a two-thirds rate
of failure to adequately identify lead dangers. About 54 million houses built
before 1978 contain some wall-to-wall carpeting, with 47 million having living
room carpeting and 46 million having bedroom carpeting. In all of these, the
EPA's rule would expose children to lead poisoning by not requiring dust wipes
following home repair.
Perhaps the most insidious aspect of the white glove test is that it could
undermine laws mandating property owners to disclose records of lead contamination
to buyers or renters. Since the EPA rule would not require renovation firms
to provide owners with written documentation of white glove tests, there would
be no records to give to buyers or renters. This loophole could result in people
moving into homes with no information on their degree of lead contamination.
Even worse than not drafting rules that would require adequate testing for
lead, the EPA proposes to relax rules concerning "dangerous practices."
This goes to the heart of the difference between corporate and environmental
approaches to dangerous materials. Whatever the toxin in question, industry
spokespersons suggest ways to control and contain it. Environmentalists argue
that it makes more sense to not make toxic messes than it is to assume the mess
will be made and ponder how to clean it up.
For years, the EPA, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD)
and several other federal agencies have agreed that the best way to control
the release of lead during home repair is to ban dangerous methods of paint
removal. Prohibited methods of paint removal include (a) open flame burning
or torching; (b) machine sanding or grinding or abrasive blasting or sandblasting
without a HEPA local exhaust control; (c) heat guns operating above 1100 degrees
Fahrenheit; or, (d) dry sanding or dry scraping (with some exceptions).
Using heat to remove lead paint is a good example of why a work practice can
be dangerous. Lead volatilizes into a fume at temperatures typical of flame
torches. A fume is not a gas. It is composed of tiny particles that are more
easily absorbed into the human body than are larger particles. This is why techniques
such as heat that were frequently used to remove lead paint between 1970 and
1990 often resulted in an increase (rather than a decrease) of blood lead levels
of children living in the home.
EPA argues that prohibiting dangerous practices could make many jobs, such
as preparing a surface for repainting, very hard or impossible. This contention
is astounding, given that prohibition of dangerous practices has been increasing
as people discover more and better alternatives.
It is hard to overemphasize the health hazards of going backwards and legitimizing
practices that are known to generate large amounts of lead dust and fumes. Rebecca
Morley is the Executive Director of the National Center for Healthy Housing
(NCHH). Reviewing the potential long term effect of the proposed changes, she
emphatically concluded that "The failure to prohibit dangerous work practices
means that many more homes will be unnecessarily contaminated, posing risks
for future generations who will occupy these homes."
On its web site, the EPA points out that there are over 310,000 children with
elevated blood lead levels and over 38 million homes with lead-based paint in
the U.S. Then why would it overlook the massive scientific data indicating that
it is trying to move in the wrong direction? Ever since it was founded during
the reign of Richard Nixon, the EPA has been criticized for being far too receptive
to spokespersons of the industries it is supposed to be regulating.
In proposing its rules on lead, the EPA lent a long ear to recommendations
of the Small Business Review Advocacy Panel Report. Instead of promoting a continuation
of bans on dangerous work practices, the Panel urged the EPA to emphasize training,
containment and clean-up concerning lead removal.
The after-the-fact thinking of the small business Panel was incorporated into
the EPA proposed rule on lead. So much so that portions of the EPA proposed
rule are no more than paraphrases of the business Panel's recommendations. Dr.
Jack Leonard of the Environmental Management Institute noted that "No scientist
who conducted the research that is the basis for much of the rule were permitted
to comment on the recommendations of the Panel."
The EPA missed a great chance to offer a new definition of what "lead
poisoning" means. The standard measurement is the number of micrograms
of lead per deciliter of blood, or mcg/dL. As decades have gone by and bodies
of research have revealed that lower levels of lead damage human health, the
blood lead level used to define lead poisoning has repeatedly dropped.
The current definition of lead poisoning used by the Centers of Disease Control
(CDC) is 10 mcg/dL. Since this standard was published, multiple studies have
documented damage to children's reading and math ability at levels below 10
mcg/dL. In fact, there is more incremental damage for children's intelligence
scores for the range 0 10 mcg/dL than for any other 10 point range. It
is now time to redefine childhood lead poisoning to mean finding any lead in
a child's blood.
Throughout U.S. schools, children frustrated by poor academic skills show behavioral
problems. Barbara Chicherio, who is on the National Committee of the Green Party
USA, is also a social worker in the public schools. She believes that "There
is no question that many of the difficulties we see in children are directly
or indirectly caused by their exposure to lead at an early age."
The approach of industry is always to try to convince the public that there
is some "acceptable" level of toxins. Lead is one of many poisons
now known to have no safe level in the human body. Proposing new rules on lead
safe work requirements during renovation, repair and painting gave EPA heads
a perfect opportunity to redefine lead poisoning and to draft rules based on
the goal of eliminating lead from our environment. Predictably, the EPA failed
to live up to the challenge.
Don Fitz is editor of Synthesis/Regeneration: A Magazine
of Green Social Thought and producer of Green Time TV in St. Louis. He can be
reached at email@example.com