Thoughts on EPA's Decision to Reconsider Lead Monitoring Requirements

Matt Shudtz

July 28, 2009

Last Thursday, EPA announced (pdf) that they would reconsider a rule on monitoring lead in the air that was published in the waning days of the Bush Administration. I wrote about the original announcement, criticizing EPA for turning its back on children in neighborhoods like mine, where certain sources of airborne lead wouldn’t be monitored because of some questionable lobbying by the lead battery industry. Long story, short: After originally proposing and asking the public to comment on lead monitoring thresholds between 200 and 600 kilograms per year, EPA changed its mind at the last minute and finalized a rule requiring monitors only at sources of airborne lead with outputs above 1000 kilograms per year.

This is an important issue because airborne lead has well known adverse impacts on neurological development. In its recitation of the justifications for regulating lead, EPA notes that manifestations of lead neurotoxicity include sensory, motor, cognitive, and behavioral impacts. Lead has been linked to lower scores on IQ tests and negative impacts on attention, memory, learning, and visuospatial processing. In the understated language of a federal agency, “Poor academic skills and achievement can have ‘enduring and important effects on objective parameters of success in real life,’ as well as increased risk of antisocial and delinquent behavior.”

Of course, kids in my neighborhood weren’t the only ones EPA would have been neglecting under the Bush-era rule, so back in January representatives of several local, state, and national organizations formally requested that EPA reconsider the rule. Their request shows, in stark terms, the struggle between OMB’s politically driven staff and EPA decisionmakers who were dutifully working to protect the public health. In one exchange after OMB requested that EPA double the threshold for “source-oriented” monitors, EPA staff sent back an e-mail informing them “that if OMB wants a 1 ton threshold, it would have to provide a rationale for that point of view,” emphasizing that the rationale should be “a technical rationale, and not policy views.”

Source-oriented monitors help EPA determine whether and how much a source of airborne lead is contributing to ambient concentrations of the toxin. That way, they can properly adjust future regulations on airborne lead. But EPA admitted in its final rule (pdf) that the 1.0 ton per year threshold “corresponds to two times the estimate of the lowest lead emission rate that under reasonable worst-case conditions could lead to lead concentrations exceeding the NAAQS.” In other words, any source that emits lead at a rate between a half ton and one ton per year might very well lead to ambient concentrations above what EPA has determined are necessary to protect public health, but we won’t bother monitoring them under the existing rule.

Thankfully, the Missouri Coalition for the Environment, NRDC, the Coalition to End Childhood Lead Poisoning, and Physicians for Social Responsibility have convinced EPA to take a closer look at the rule. Congratulations are due to those groups, and thanks are due to EPA.

So what might EPA do from here?

Obviously, one priority should be to change the threshold for source-oriented monitoring to a lower level – say, the level that might make a source the cause of local ambient concentrations above the NAAQS. Another priority should be improving the network of ambient (i.e., not source-oriented) monitors to help EPA better understand lead exposures for vulnerable populations. Promoting environmental justice and children’s health have been recurring themes in Administrator Jackson’s public statements, so I’d hope that she would take full advantage of this opportunity to improve our understanding of a toxin that is proven to disproportionately affect kids, especially low-income and minority kids.

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