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Federal Appeals Court Gives EPA 90 Days To Propose Long-Awaited Lead Standards


The Environmental Protection Agency has been working on new standards for the amount of lead permitted in household paint, dust and soil for six years. It recently said it would need about six more years. Lead poisoning can lead to serious mental and physical ailments in children and, in extreme cases, death. So yesterday, a federal appeals court said in essence that the agency had been stalling. It gave the EPA just 90 days to propose its long-awaited rule.

Joining us now is Eve Gartner, a staff attorney for Earthjustice and one of the lawyers who argued the case against the EPA in the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. Welcome to the program.

EVE GARTNER: Thank you.

SIEGEL: And first, explain for listeners what we're talking about here. What exactly is the EPA responsible for regulating when it comes to lead levels in houses?

GARTNER: Well, the EPA is responsible for defining, what is a dust lead hazard? If you hire, for example, a lead inspector and he comes to your home, you want to know, do I have a lead problem or do I not? And if he's applying a standard that's too high he might say, oh, your house is perfectly fine, there's no lead here, even though you might have a very significant lead problem and, in fact, your child may be exposed to dangerous levels of lead.

SIEGEL: There has been an EPA standard for lead dust. I mean, why is it so clear that it's not sufficient?

GARTNER: Well, under the current standard, which was set in 2001, it's been estimated by the American Academy of Pediatrics that over 50 percent of children exposed to lead that EPA considers acceptable would end up with a blood lead level that's considered a level of concern that would require medical intervention. And also, the growing understanding that any exposure to lead leads to brain damage. I think previously we thought there was a threshold, but we now understand that any measurable level of lead can lead to brain damage.

SIEGEL: The agency said in 2011 that it would update its standards. As you understand it, why has it taken them so long?

GARTNER: Frankly, I don't understand it. The only thing I can assume is that they have not prioritized protecting children from lead because EPA has acknowledged the standard was inadequate long ago. It just simply hasn't got the job done.

SIEGEL: This ruling has prompted much talk about Donald Trump's EPA and the head of it. But actually, it was the Obama EPA that you were litigating with initially, weren't you? Their argument was we were called upon to study and to look for standards, and we've been doing that. We've had panels. We've been studying. And we're learning more about lead. We're not obliged to issue a new rule.

GARTNER: Yeah, that's exactly right. And what we said to both the Obama administration and the Trump administration is you don't need to study this anymore. We know everything that we need to know about lead. It is poisoning our children's brain. And we just need to act.

SIEGEL: Do you think they actually can produce a new standard in 90 days? Or is the bureaucracy so slow that they just really can't come up with an answer during that time?

GARTNER: I think they can absolutely get this done. I mean, this is just math. What is the lead dust hazard standard that would lead to children not being exposed to unsafe levels of lead?

SIEGEL: But if I hear you, it's easy 'cause you say the number - the answer to the question is zero.

GARTNER: And then I think they do have to take into account what's practical. Obviously, they need a standard that can be achieved. They've been studying this since 2010 by their own accounts. I believe they can get this done.

SIEGEL: Eve Gartner, a staff attorney for Earthjustice, thanks for talking with us today.

GARTNER: Thank you.

SIEGEL: And an EPA spokesman told NPR today that - and this is a quote - "lead exposure remains a significant health threat to children, and EPA will continue to work diligently on a number of fronts to address issues surrounding childhood lead exposure from multiple sources." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.