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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Controversy Over New Lead Regs

Air Date: Week of

Bruce Lanphear

The Environmental Protection Agency lowered the acceptable level of lead in the air for the first time in thirty years. Lead expert Dr. Bruce Lanphear served on the advisory panel to the EPA. He tells host Bruce Gellerman the new standard, ten times lower than the previous level, still isn’t low enough.


GELLERMAN: From the Jennifer and Ted Stanley studios in Somerville, Massachusetts, this is Living on Earth.

I’m Bruce Gellerman, in for Steve Curwood.

Lawmakers took the lead out of gasoline and paint 30 years ago, but the federal standards for lead particles in the air haven’t changed since then, even though we still continue to use lead, largely in car batteries and bullets for hunters, two-and-a-half million pounds a year. But even minute parts per billion of neurotoxic lead can cause birth defects, mental retardation, and behavioral disorders. So critics sued the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, charging the three-decade-old lead standards were too lax. A federal court agreed, and only minutes before the EPA would have been found in contempt of court, the agency issued a new standard. Here’s EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson:

JOHNSON: These stronger standards tighten the allowable lead level ten times, to 0.15 micrograms of lead per cubic meter of air.

GELLERMAN: The new federal lead standards are actually at the upper end of a range recommended by an independent panel that advised the EPA. Dr. Bruce Lanphear was on that panel. He’s a health sciences professor at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia. And Dr. Lanphear, it seems your panel got what it wanted.

LANPHEAR: There’s a bit of bittersweet about it, Bruce. On one hand, yes, from the short-term perspective it’s really good to see this happen. From a longer-term perspective, it seems like lead poisoning and the pandemic - which is really worldwide - has been a failure of public health. We knew back in 1908, how to prevent childhood lead poisoning. But I think this was a reasonable compromise in a short term. I think we need to realize, though, that still, we’re quite a bit, evolutionarily speaking, above background levels and that this needs to be seen as part of a series of steps.

GELLERMAN: The EPA was brought into this kicking and screaming. They literally took a last minute decision on their part to avoid being held in contempt by a court. They were sued effectively and they had just minutes left to come out with this ruling.

LANPHEAR: Yes. This has become typical, certainly in the past decade or so, where EPA, CDC, many of the other federal agencies, really are quite reluctant to do anything that might harm industry profits. And I think one of the things as a society we need to begin to grapple with is, have we achieved a good balance? Are we adequately protecting public health from a whole host of environmental influences? Or are we erring too much on the side of protecting industry?

Bruce Lanphear

GELLERMAN: The devil really is in the details in this decision. They’ve got to monitor how much lead is in the environment, and my understanding is they don’t have the equipment, they don’t have a network of devices that will effectively measure this stuff.

LANPHEAR: That’s right. They let the monitoring system that was in place twenty to thirty years ago fall apart, and so now they’ve got to rebuild it.

GELLERMAN: So, is there money there to rebuild it?

LANPHEAR: Once a standard is promulgated there has to be resources towards monitoring. But I think it’s a big question, particularly in the midst of this financial crisis, that the United States is in the midst of.

GELLERMAN: The lobbying association for lead batteries said, “Look, you know, we’re actually doing a great job. We’ve got a hundred and fifteen million lead batteries that are in cars that we’re recycling. You know, what do you want from us?”

LANPHEAR: I’d like them to do better. Denmark did this fifteen years ago. They decided that over the next decade they would dramatically reduce or ban all non-essential use of lead. And I’d like to see industry take the next step, to be more proactive and say, “We’re going to invest in new technologies that don’t require lead at all.”

GELLERMAN: But they’re saying they don’t have the technology now and it’s going to cost them a fortune even if they did have it.

LANPHEAR: Well I think one of the things to recognize, Bruce, is that regulations serve many purposes. One purpose is to protect children’s health or the public health. The second is to help encourage industries to develop new technologies, to be innovative.

GELLERMAN: There have been, what, 6,000 studies or more done since 1978, the last time the lead levels were recalibrated and they had to get the lead out of gasoline, right?


GELLERMAN: Is there any disagreement in any of those studies that any amount of lead in the environment is nasty?

LANPHEAR: I think that’s been the conclusion of every independent scientific group. What most people may not realize, is that the burden of proof is on public health or scientists to demonstrate the lead is a toxin. It should be the other way around. It should be that if I as a corporation or an industry want to use a product, I have to prove it’s safe before it’s used or before it’s marketed or before it’s released from my smokestacks. And so we set a very high bar. And in fact you might argue that the only time these regulations actually gain traction is when there’s significant public outcry, when the forces come together. And just having the scientists demonstrate that lead is a toxin at any level is not sufficient. There has to be enough outcry from the public for things to begin to change.

GELLERMAN: Well Dr. Lanphear, I want to thank you very much.

LANPHEAR: Thank you, Bruce.

GELLERMAN: Dr. Bruce Lanphear teaches at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia and was a member of the EPA’s lead advisory panel.



The Environmental Protection Agency advisory panel on lead released this report before the decision


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