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GETTING THE LEAD OUT

President Bush has taken his fair share of lumps from us and others concerned about his seemingly all-talk-and-no-action approach to the deterioration of the environment. That's why, when his administration does something of benefit - in this case, cutting the limit on airborne lead by 90 percent - he should be given his due.

The Environmental Protection Agency's action this month marked the first time in 30 years that the regulation had been strengthened, from 1.5 micrograms of lead per cubic meter of air to 0.15 micrograms per cubic meter. The Oct. 16 announcement by EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson was not unforeseen. The agency was under court order to do something as part of a settlement of a lawsuit brought by the Missouri Coalition for the Environment. What wasn't known was whether Johnson would follow the advice of agency staff experts and the Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee. They recommended the drastically low lead limit he ultimately adopted.

Children get exposed to lead after it falls to the ground and mixes with indoor dust and soil. Scientific studies have shown that exposure to lead was damaging the health of children at levels lower than the old federal limit. Those reports have shown a link between lead exposure and IQ loss and other developmental damage in children.

Lead has been outlawed from use in gasoline and paint since the 1970s. This led to a 97 percent reduction in the average amount of lead in the air between 1980 and 2005. But lead is still getting into the atmosphere from 16,000 sources (smelters, metal mines, waste incinerators and aviation fuel), which pump out 1,300 tons of it each year. The new regulation would be enforced by establishing a monitoring system in cities of more than 500,000 people and by requiring states to set up ambient air monitors near sources that release more than one ton of lead annually.

The one hitch in the EPA's plan is that there are fewer than 200 air lead monitors nationwide. Johnson plans to bump that number to more than 300. The agency certainly has time to get the equipment. The regulation doesn't take effect until 2017.

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