Washington, DC — In an unannounced move, Stephen Johnson, the Acting Administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, has balked at taking the last major step to protect urban children and residential construction workers from the hazards of lead-based paint, according to internal agency briefings released today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). As a result, the national goal of eliminating childhood lead poisoning will remain beyond reach.
The principal source of lead dust exposure to U.S. children is renovation and repair of older residences, which have a much higher prevalence of lead-based paint. Federal studies indicate that the vast majority of an estimated 20 to 30 million older-home repair projects each year are done without lead safe cleanup and contamination practices. Consequently, these renovations kick up significant amounts of lead dust that permeates carpets, ductwork and soil, creating both short and long-term exposure to residents.
By law, EPA is supposed to require that certified contractors using workers trained in lead-safe practices do all remodeling in building constructed before 1978. Under the Toxic Substances Control Act, the deadline for EPA to adopt these “regulations to renovation or remodeling activities” was October 28, 1996. Although behind schedule, EPA continued to develop regulations through 2003. In 2004, however, then-Deputy and now-Acting Administrator Stephen Johnson moved to scrap plans for renovation regulations and instead opt for a yet to be developed voluntary approach, according to agency records. Earlier this month, President Bush nominated Johnson to become EPA Administrator.
Johnson made his decision despite EPA’s own analyses showing the renovation regulations had a net economic benefit of at least $2.73 billion per year. These internal analyses also showed that –
- An estimated 1.4 million children under age 7 residing in some 4.9 million households are at risk of lead exposure due to unsafe repair and renovations;
- The renovation regulations could be expected to prevent at least 28,000 lead-related illnesses each year, thereby preventing $1.6 billion in medical costs and economic losses annually; and
- The additional cost to homeowners would average $116 per interior renovation and $42 for exterior work.
“The Bush Administration has walked away from the national goal of eliminating childhood lead poisoning by 2010, in the process leaving 1.4 million children behind,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch whose organization is seeking to create a coalition to push, and if need be, litigate for the adoption of the long-stalled repair and renovation regulations. “EPA has abdicated its public health responsibilities by glomming onto a voluntary program without a scintilla of evidence that their preferred ‘non-regulatory approach’ works.”
Children in their prime developmental years (under age 7) are at much greater risk of elevated blood-lead levels. While lead exposure levels have steadily fallen over the past four decades, those improvements have leveled off in recent years. The Centers for Disease Control estimates that 434,000 children in the U.S. under age 5 currently have elevated blood-lead levels associated with deleterious health effects. Older cities tend to have higher rates of childhood lead poisoning. A study, in Chicago, for example, found 20 percent children under age 5 with dangerously elevated blood-lead levels.
“This decision by Mr. Johnson to abandon public health protection for inner city children bears on his fitness to serve as the head of the EPA,” Ruch added. “We would hope that Congress takes the time to carefully examine this issue.”