Good news today from the EPA! As environmental lawyers, we haven't had much opportunity to say that in the last eight years. I like saying that. It's encouraging to see a new era take root at EPA.
In January this year, NRDC partnered with the Interdisciplinary Environmental Clinic at the Washington University School of Law, the Missouri Coalition for the Environment Foundation, the Coalition to End Childhood Lead Poisoning, and Physicians for Social Responsibility to petition EPA, asking EPA to reconsider its decision not to monitor lead emissions from a large number of lead polluters — those that put out between half a ton to a ton of lead a year. EPA just granted our petition and will reconsider its decision not to monitor the pollution from facilities that emit less than one ton a year of lead.
Lead is a harmful toxin that causes brain, kidney and cardiovascular damage. In children, even small amounts of lead have been proven to lower IQ levels. More than 16,000 industrial facilities across the country, including power plants, smelters and cement kilns, emit lead into the air, where it eventually settles into soil and dust. The lead remains there indefinitely, to be tracked into homes or ingested by children as they play outdoors and put their hands in their mouths.
On October 15, 2008, EPA finalized a new national air quality standard for airborne lead. This was the first update to the standard in 30 years since it was first established in 1978. The new standard of 0.15 micrograms per cubic meter of air is ten times stronger than the previous standard and represents a huge victory for public health. Unfortunately, last minute White House pressure resulted in a weakened monitoring rule for individual sources of lead pollution that undermines the health-protections of the revised standard. This weakened monitoring rule is what the EPA will now reconsider.
This is good news for the communities near these lead polluters, including Cass County, IN; Charlevoix County, MI; Lawrence County, PA; Cuyahoga County, OH; Oswego County, NY; Harris County, TX; and Dakota County, MN among others. (To see other communities living downwind of lead polluters, see our maps.) Without a revised threshold for monitoring, people living in these communities would not have the benefit of lead monitors downwind of the cement plants, refineries or smelters in their communities, as my colleague Gina Solomon pointed out in a blog last year. A revised threshold would help scientists collect the data they need to protect children's health from dangerous airborne lead. It would help ensure that all communities have air that meets the strict new standard EPA set last year to reduce airborne lead. EPA's own analysis shows that all facilities emitting more than half a ton a year need to be monitored in order to capture all potential violations of the new standard.
Given the serious impacts of even low levels of lead exposure, it's absolutely critical for EPA to lower the threshold for monitoring lead pollution to cover all these sources of lead across the country. I am hopeful that EPA will follow this great start by revising the threshold for monitoring lead pollution to ensure that children in all communities are protected by the new standards for airborne lead that EPA announced last year.