National Health Organizations Sue EPA For Neglecting To Update Lead Standards

Nurse Veronica Robinson draws blood from 7-year-old boy during a lead-testing clinic held in Flint, Mich. in March. CREDIT: AP Photo/Mike Householder
Nurse Veronica Robinson draws blood from 7-year-old boy during a lead-testing clinic held in Flint, Mich. in March. CREDIT: AP Photo/Mike Householder

Sixty-five thousand children in Baltimore. Nine thousand children in Flint, Michigan. And now, potentially hundreds of low-income families living in East Chicago, Indiana.

These incidents of long-ignored residential lead poisoning are just a few examples of the cases that are slowly rising to the surface all across the country. While both public and private organizations have been accused of negligence in these many cases, there’s one federal agency that has remained at the center of each crisis: The Environmental Protection Agency.

The EPA, however, still relies on lead standards from the early 2000s that don’t even take human health risks into account.

This week, national health coalitions have joined together to make sure the EPA is held accountable for its alleged failure to protect residents from lead contamination.

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Seven environmental health and justice organizations across the country filed a lawsuit against the EPA on Wednesday for its alleged failure to change outdated, dangerous lead standards. These inaccurate standards — which other residential, labor, and health agencies rely on to asses the potential danger in house paint, water, and soil — may be to blame for many of the long-overlooked lead problems in historically low-income neighborhoods across the country.

In the suit, the organization gives the EPA 90 days to propose an update to their lead standards to reflect current toxicity research.

The groups involved, including the Sierra Club, New York City Coalition to End Lead Poisoning, California Communities Against Toxics, and New Jersey Citizen Action, made children’s health the focal point of their argument. That’s because children under the age of six are particularly vulnerable to lead contamination, and exposure could lead to irreversible neurological damage — or death. High levels of lead in children’s blood have been the first indication of serious contamination in recent cases.

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“It is simply outrageous that our children and grandchildren continue to be used as human lead detectors,” said Phyllis Salowe-Kaye, director of New Jersey Citizen Action, in a Wednesday press release.

“It is simply outrageous that our children and grandchildren continue to be used as human lead detectors.”

This isn’t the first time the EPA has been asked to change these standards. In 2009, another committee of national organizations petitioned the agency to redefine the terms “dust-lead hazard” and “lead-based paint” under the terms of the Toxic Substances Control Act to reflect current research. The EPA still has yet to sufficiently address this request, according to Earthjustice, the environmental law organization that filed this week’s suit on behalf of the other groups.

“Our children have no chance against lead poisoning if we keep these dangers hidden,” said Zakia Rafiqa Shabazz, mother of a lead-poisoned son and founder of United Parents Against Lead, in the release.

“EPA’s outdated standards and lack of enforcement let lead remain hidden and silent, causing irreversible brain damage, learning disabilities and reduced IQ in children. We as parents want to protect our children but we can do little against an invisible enemy. A child is a terrible thing to waste.”

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Not all federal agencies have such outdated standards. Recent research pushed the Center for Disease Control and Prevention to tighten its standards on what safe levels of lead look like in a child’s bloodstream.

The EPA, however, still relies on lead standards from the early 2000s that don’t even take human health risks into account.

“In other words, health inspectors using EPA guidelines could say: ‘You’re safe,’ when half the children exposed to those levels were getting lead poisoning.”

These guidelines are followed by school boards, health organizations, city and state government agencies, and the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the federal agency responsible for inspecting public housing for toxins.

This inconsistency has added to the frustration among advocacy groups and residents.

“The lead hazard standards set by the EPA in 2001 were intended to lead to a 1 to 5 percent probability of children developing elevated blood-lead levels,” Hannah Chang, Earthjustice attorney, told New Orleans’ Times-Picayune.

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But, she said, new data has drastically corrected this percentage, finding these standards to leave children with a 50 percent chance of developing high blood levels instead.

“In other words, health inspectors using EPA guidelines could say: ‘You’re safe,’ when half the children exposed to those levels were getting lead poisoning,” Chang said.