After 30 years, EPA toughens lead emission standard

WASHINGTON — The amount of lead that can be emitted into the air in the United States has been dramatically reduced under a new rule the Environmental Protection Agency announced on Thursday to protect the health of millions of Americans — especially children — nationwide.

It was the first new rule on airborne lead in 30 years, and came in response to some 6,000 scientific studies since 1990 that show that lead is dangerous to the human body at much lower levels than previously known.

The studies have linked low levels of lead to damage to children’s nervous systems that can lead to IQ loss, poor academic achievement and permanent learning disabilities, EPA administrator Stephen Johnson said in announcing the new standard. In adults, it can cause increased blood pressure and decreased kidney funciton.

Children are especially vulnerable. Lead doesn’t dissipate, but instead contaminates soil and remains there for a long time. Children can ingest it when they play outside and put dirty hands in their mouths.

The EPA last set a standard for lead at 1.5 micrograms per cubic meter of air in 1978. The new standard is 0.15 micrograms per cubic meter.

The new standard was in line with what EPA staff scientists and an independent body of science advisers said was necessary.

Lead in the air dropped by 97 percent since 1978, mainly because the government banned it in gasoline, Johnson said. But today more than 16,000 sources emit an estimated 1,300 tons of lead into the year annually.

"The new stronger standards address these remaining emissions and offer a shield to protect the health of our nation's children," Johnson said.

"They did a great job," said Gina Solomon of the Natural Resources Defense Council and a professor of medicine at the University of California at San Francisco, who advocated for the new lower standard.

Two improvements were still needed, Solomon said. The new rule allows for an average over three months. In some cases, a smelter can belch an occasional amount of lead that pollutes the soil but may not violate the standard, and so a monthly standard would be better, she said.

Solomon said that the EPA also needs more monitoring stations than the new rule requires.