Get the Lead Out: Lead in Your Area

Children across the nation face the risk of lead poisoning, but steps can be taken to protect them

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.

Today, more than 300,000 children in the United States, particularly in urban areas, suffer from lead poisoning, and uncounted more have unhealthy levels of lead in their blood.

For 30 years, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency maintained an air-quality standard that allowed 1.5 micrograms of lead per cubic meter of air -- a standard put in place when scientists understood far less about lead and its risks than they do today. In fall 2008, EPA followed the strong urging of NRDC and other public health advocates and finally made a change. The new standard of 0.15 micrograms per cubic meter falls within the limit recommended by scientists and researchers.

This change represents a significant leap forward in the fight against lead poisoning, but enforcing the new standard remains problematic. Less than 200 air-lead monitors are deployed nationwide, making it impossible to measure the risk in many communities. NRDC urges the EPA to strengthen its monitoring system, especially downwind from known polluters, in order to ensure the effectiveness of this revised standard. It's the only way that children and their health can truly be protected.

Lead in Your Area

The most recent U.S. EPA inventory (2002) lists 16,600 facilities that emit lead into the nation's air. About 7,000 of these are relatively small, reported to release less than one pound of lead per year. The remaining 9,600 facilities release significant amounts of lead each year, from one pound to more than 10,000 pounds -- the largest being 117,392 pounds from a lead smelter in Missouri. According to the EPA's inventory, sources of airborne lead emissions can be found in every U.S. county. In some counties more than 10,000 pounds of lead are emitted into the air each year. The EPA monitoring stations responsible for testing for lead in the air (marked with stars on the maps) are not located throughout the country and are totally absent from some areas where lead emissions may be the highest.