Utne Blogs > Environment

Let's Get the Lead Out, EPA

 by Keith Goetzman

Tags: Environment, Green Living, lead poisoning, toys, toxic, renovation, paint, EPA,

Lead cleanupWith the Senate’s passage last week of a ban on lead in children’s toys, it’s tempting to think that we’ve taken care of that nasty old lead problem. But we’ve taken care of just a small part of it. The fact remains that many children are still exposed to lead in the environment, even if they don’t regularly suck on toxic Thomas the Tank Engines.

Children are indeed at higher risk from lead exposure than adults, the Alliance for Healthy Homes reminds us, though the greatest source of exposure isn’t toys but the paint in old homes (PDF), specifically the dust created when paint is damaged during home renovations.

Unfortunately, cleaning up this source has less public oomph—and thus political power—behind it than the toy scare. That’s why the Environmental Protection Agency, ordered by Congress in 1992 to address the danger of lead in home renovations, took until March this year to actually do something. And even then it was a baby step, requiring contractors who fix up older homes and other buildings occupied by children to take simple precautions against creating and spreading lead dust. The cleaning must then be verified—by the same workers who do the lead removal. The rule doesn’t take effect until 2010.

“In the 16 years since we’ve been waiting for this rule, at least 17 million children have been exposed to harmful levels of lead unnecessarily, permanently losing IQ points as a result,” the Alliance for Healthy Homes said in a statement (PDF). “The new regulation is an important first step toward preventing another generation from being poisoned by debris left behind after a remodeling job.”

The Alliance went on to criticize the lack of teeth in the new rule and encouraged the EPA to take additional steps, including banning “dry scraping,” which generates lots of hard-to-clean lead dust and increases exposure; requiring formal lead-safe training of all workers, not just their supervisors; and strengthening its enforcement. I suggest going even further and enhancing the educational effort aimed at do-it-yourself remodelers, who every weekend haul out their scrapers, sanders, and demolition bars and release tons of lead dust into the air, often unknowingly.

Lead is a potent neurotoxin that can retard children's mental and physical development, reduce attention span and delay fetal development, according to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission. Alarming new studies have even linked childhood lead exposure to adult crime and brain damage. Let’s use the awareness generated by the toy scare to tackle this lurking environmental threat.

Image by skidrd, licensed under Creative Commons.