EPA to cut programs that keep children safe from lead

The cuts place the responsibility back on states, but only 14 have existing programs that could take up the slack.

A contaminated building in Rhode Island where contractors cleaned lead paint inside the structure in 2006. Three former lead paint manufacturers were held liable for paint that poisoned Rhode Island children for years. CREDIT: AP Photo/Chitose Suzuki
A contaminated building in Rhode Island where contractors cleaned lead paint inside the structure in 2006. Three former lead paint manufacturers were held liable for paint that poisoned Rhode Island children for years. CREDIT: AP Photo/Chitose Suzuki

The Environmental Protection Agency plans to slash funding for programs that protect children from dangerous lead exposure. The move would eliminate programs that raise public awareness about the toxic metal’s risks and train workers on how to safely remove lead-based paint.

The EPA’s proposed cuts were revealed in a budget memo published by the Washington Post. That memo outlines funding cuts for two lead-based paint programs totaling more than $16 million and the elimination of six dozen full-time employees.

Lead-based paint, including lead-contaminated dust, is one of the most common causes of lead poisoning, according to the EPA. A 2011 national housing survey estimated that more than a third of housing units across the nation (37 million of 106 million units) contain lead-based paint, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Research has shown that the neurotoxic effects of lead on a child’s developing brain can be devastating and irreversible. An estimated 2.6 percent of preschool children in the U.S. have a blood lead concentration greater than 5 micrograms per deciliter, the level at which the federal government recommends public health intervention.

Elevated blood lead levels can lead to increased aggression, lack of impulse control, hyperactivity, inability to focus, inattention, and delinquent behaviors. A growing body of evidence has also shown that low blood lead levels are associated with multiple issues such as lowered IQ levels, attention-related behaviors and poor academic achievement.

Cutting deeper and deeper

These changes align with orders from the Trump Administration that the EPA significantly reduce its budget by 31 percent. The agency plans to lay off a quarter of its employees and eliminate more than 50 programs.

The EPA’s lead-based paint program changes include cutting $2.56 million and about 73 full-time equivalent employees from its Lead Risk Reduction Program. That program certifies renovators who remodel housing that might contain lead-based paint, and also educates the public on how to minimize residential lead exposure, according to the Washington Post.

The EPA has also proposed slashing a $14.05 million program that provides grants to state and tribal jurisdictions that tackle lead-based paint risks. In the memo, the EPA states that the “funding for this mature program is eliminated, returning the responsibility for funding to state.”

“This is a sad day for the children of the U.S.”

“This is a sad day for the children of the U.S.,” said Professor Howard Mielke of Tulane University’s School of Medicine, who is one of the nation’s leading experts on lead soil contamination. In an email to ThinkProgress, Mielke said “the EPA lead funding cuts dissolve the responsibility of the federal agency from having to set up any kind of national program that reduces lead exposure.”

Most states depend on the federal government to provide training to contractors who renovate homes with lead paint, with the exception of 14 states who offer their own programs, according to the EPA’s website. If lead-based paint is removed improperly, the lead-filled dust can create more hazards and expose children, adults and pets who inhale the extremely fine lead particles, said Mielke.

These proposed changes don’t impact federal housing standards that regulate lead contamination clean-up inside and outside homes, but they indicate a willingness to reduce standards that protect vulnerable populations from the harmful effects of lead. Scientists and health experts have described the existing housing regulations as “outdated” and have called for stricter standards that are more protective of children’s health.

A welcome change for industries, but a disaster for children

The National Association of the Remodeling Industry told the Washington Post that it welcomed the EPA’s proposed cuts. The association’s Chief Executive Officer Fred Ulreich told the Post in a statement that his group “believes that the program can be better run and enforcement can be more vigorous the closer it is to the local contractors.”

But legal experts and environmental advocates believe these cuts will be disastrous at the local level and will put children at risk.

Loyola University Chicago School of Law Professor Emily A. Benfer told ThinkProgress that the EPA cuts will set the country back decades in terms of lead poisoning prevention, and will guarantee the unintended lead poisoning and permanent neurological damage of hundreds of thousands of children.

“As a society we have a duty to protect our children. These actions are the equivalent of our government turning its back on our children and their futures,” wrote Benfer in an email to ThinkProgress.

Benfer, who is also director of Loyola’s Health Justice Project, has spent half a dozen years working in collaboration with health providers, legal aid workers, and law students to help low-income families battle toxic living conditions in lead-contaminated Illinois neighborhoods.

“Without a nationwide regulated approach to remediation, untrained individuals will unwittingly contaminate homes and communities with lead hazards, placing vulnerable children at risk,” said Benfer.

“These actions are the equivalent of our government turning its back on our children…”

Although the federal government banned lead-based paint in residential homes in 1978, the risk for exposure is particularly high in older, dilapidated homes with flaking and chipped paint.

Lead-based paint use in the United States peaked in the 1920s, declined sharply by the 1940s, and ultimately the federal government banned lead from household paints by 1978, according to Mielke, an urban geochemistry and health expert who teaches in the department of pharmacology at Tulane University’s School of Medicine.

Concerned that current policies and practices are falling short of what’s needed to prevent childhood lead exposure, the American Academy of Pediatrics released a policy statement last July recommending primary prevention as the focus of public health policies. The academy cited paint as a major source of lead for children, but noted ingestion of lead-contaminated house dust and residential soil as the primary pathways for exposure for children.