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Millions of homes, schools may have to eliminate lead dust under EPA plan

Proposed rule would almost completely prohibit lead dust in older buildings. The more stringent limits would trigger requirements to remove lead paint.

A worker vacuums up lead-contaminated paint chips after scraping the exterior of a home. (Timothy C. Wright for the Washington Post)
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In one of its strongest measures yet against a contaminant that poisons children, the Environmental Protection Agency on Wednesday proposed tougher standards on lead in paint in older homes and schools, potentially triggering its removal in millions of buildings.

The new rules would almost completely prohibit lead in dust in older buildings. The only contamination allowed would be the lowest levels that current removal efforts can’t eliminate, the agency said. It estimates that each year those requirements would reduce lead exposures for 250,000 to 500,000 children younger than 6.

The rules would apply to homes, schools, day-care centers and other facilities regularly visited by children of that age. While the United States has banned the sale of lead-based paint since 1978, federal rules still allowed for some low-level exposure from paint applied before that. The new proposal would update EPA standards to account for a new scientific consensus that lead can harm children at even the most microscopic levels, the agency said.

Under the proposal, prompted by a lawsuit, inspections that find any level of lead in a home or child-care facility would require the location to be classified as a lead hazard. That would trigger requirements for disclosures to families or home buyers, and in some cases requirements that lead be reduced to levels that are functionally invisible, the EPA said.

“There is no safe level of lead,” Michal Freedhoff, head of chemical safety and pollution prevention at the EPA, said in a statement. “Even low levels are detrimental to children’s health, and this proposal would bring us closer to eradicating lead-based paint hazards from homes and child care facilities across the U.S. once and for all.”

Roughly 31 millions homes still have lead paint on their walls, the EPA said, and scraping and sanding creates dust that can cause lead poisoning if it’s ingested. A Government Accountability Office report in 2019 estimated that more than 15 million students were enrolled in school districts that found lead-based paint in their buildings.

The proposal comes out of a 2019 lawsuit filed by several environmental groups, including the Sierra Club, that alleged the EPA for years set lead limits that didn’t fully protect people.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit ruled that the agency must set its hazard standard solely based on health factors, leading the agency to conclude that its rules must require a hazard classification at any sign of lead, the agency said. Several of the environmental groups that sued are applauding the proposal. They called the response overdue.

“EPA is finally proposing to do what the law requires, adopt truly protective lead standards,” Eve Gartner, a managing attorney at the groups’ law firm, Earthjustice, said in a statement. “This is a leap forward in the country’s long-delayed efforts to eliminate lead exposures in millions of residences.”

The Biden administration has been using a multipronged approach to lead, employing the Department of Housing and Urban Development and other agencies alongside the EPA. A nationwide crisis over lead water pipes has often received the most attention, but the administration has also tried to take steps on lead paint in old buildings, which public health experts say is a bigger source of exposure for children.

Philip Landrigan, who directs Boston College’s global public health program, called lead exposure one of the big four threats to the health of U.S. children, alongside climate change, air pollution and pesticides. In 2020, the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation and UNICEF found that an estimated 1.23 million children in the United States have high blood lead levels.

Landrigan said the standards that the EPA wants to update are the linchpin for its program. A first set determines whether a building should be declared a lead hazard. That designation can then require efforts to abate or eliminate lead to a level that would satisfy a second set of standards.

“Critics are going to say it’s expensive. And it will be expensive undoubtedly. But the cost of remediation is a one-time expense,” Landrigan said. “If you leave the lead in place, you’re leaving it there generation after generation to damage children’s brains. And it turns out IQ loss is very costly, not just in humane terms but economic terms.”

Lead exposure can cause behavioral problems, lower IQs and slow growth, the EPA said. It called lead in dust especially risky for young children because they crawl and put things in their mouths, raising their chance of ingestion during developmental periods when they are most vulnerable. Poor and minority communities are often at increased risk because old, deteriorating lead paint is more common there.

Some operators in the home renovation industry have criticized lead rules as too costly. A spokesman for the National Association of the Remodeling Industry said Wednesday it is too early to determine what the industry impact of the new proposal might be.

The EPA requirements often require specially trained workers to do the testing and remediation work, and critics say some customers simply opt to hire contractors who deliberately skirt the federal standards.

Landrigan said aggressive enforcement and further mandates are needed to be sure property owners and managers are testing for lead. The EPA did not immediately respond to questions about whether it would push for testing mandates.

The EPA’s proposal will go through a 60-day comment period, and then a further analysis that typically takes months before the agency issues a final rule. An agency spokesman said officials expect that will happen sometime next year.