NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune

New Orleans Group Sues EPA For Delaying New Lead Standards

Child health is the focus of new rules on public housing contamination

NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune — August 24, 2016

By Jed Lipinski

A New Orleans nonprofit and seven other community organizations around the United States sued the Environmental Protection Agency on Wednesday (Aug. 24) for failing to update its 15-year-old standards about what constitutes safe levels of lead-based paint and lead dust. The suit contends that the EPA has yet to institute new lead hazard standards despite a growing body of scientific research suggesting its current standards are outdated.

The environmental law group EarthJustice filed the suit on behalf of the New Orleans-based A Community Voice as well as California Communities Against Toxics, Healthy Homes Collaborative, New Jersey Citizen Action, New York City Coalition to End Lead Poisoning, the Sierra Club, WE ACT for Environmental Justice and United Parents Against Lead National. They asked the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco to insist on an updated rule within 90 days and a final rule within six months. The EPA said it will review the suit and respond.

The suit comes seven years after a number of groups petitioned the EPA to update the definitions of "dust-lead hazard" and "lead-based paint" under the terms of the Toxic Substances Control Act. They asked the agency to lower its lead hazard standards, now 40 micrograms of lead per square foot of surface area, to 10 micrograms. They also requested that the definition of "lead-based paint" be reduced from 5,000 parts per million to 600 parts.

The new suit was filed partly in response to research by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which showed that lead levels higher than 5 micrograms per deciliter of blood in children can cause lead poisoning. Previous studies had suggested 10 micrograms per deciliter were acceptable.

The suit says the EPA's Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee has already determined that the agency's current lead contamination standards are "insufficiently protective of children's health." The effects of lead poisoning are irreversible and include cognitive impairment and behavioral disorders, the Mayo Clinic says.

"The lead hazard standards set by the EPA in 2001 were intended to lead to a 1-5 percent probability of children developing elevated blood-lead levels," Hannah Chang, a staff attorney for Earthjustice, said in a phone interview. "In fact, data showed that 50 percent of kids will get elevated blood-lead levels at those standards."

"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 added.

According to Earthjustice, the EPA agreed to update its standards and said it would initiate rulemaking. Seven years later, however, no evident progress has been made, the group said.

The disastrous effects of lead poisoning gained national attention in 2015 after the discovery that tap water in Flint, Mich., was contaminated with high concentration of the toxic chemical. The EPA has labeled lead poisoning the No. 1 environmental health threat to children younger than 6. Moreover, lead poisoning has been found to have a disproportionate effect on low-income and non-white people, who are more likely to live in older and un-remediated homes that contain high levels of lead paint and dust.

"Experts say there is no safe level of lead exposure, and yet the EPA continues to operate using outdated measurements," said Beth Butler, director of A Community Voice. The New Orleans nonprofit works with low- and middle-income neighborhoods.

Butler said her organization is engaged in a similar dispute with the Orleans Parish School Board. A Community Voice is in the process of recruiting researchers from Virginia Tech University to test the water in drinking fountains at schools across the city, she said.

"The School Boards says, 'We're doing what the EPA standards are'," Butler said. "But the evidence suggests those standards aren't safe for our kids."

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