The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has formally withdrawn its voluntary program for preventing childhood lead poisoning just five months after it was first unveiled. For the past several months, the agency had offered this voluntary program as the reason that it was balking at adopting long overdue regulations requiring that repairs and renovations in pre-1978 housing be conducted in a lead-safe manner.
Congress had mandated that EPA set up a certification requirement for contractors to ensure that workers are trained in lead-safe practices when remodeling buildings 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. In 2004, however, EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson scrapped plans for renovation regulations and instead opted for a voluntary approach.
“On the issue of combating childhood lead poisoning, the Bush Administration has dropped its final fig leaf and tacitly admitted that it is doing nothing,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, whose organization is preparing a lawsuit against EPA on the issue. “EPA’s voluntary alternative to lead-safe regulations was such a joke that the agency could no longer keep up this facade with a straight face.”
Renovation and repair of older residences is the principal source of lead dust exposure to U.S. children.
EPA’s own internal reviews showed that the now-abandoned regulation would benefit 1.4 million children under age 7, prevent at least 28,000 lead-related illnesses each year and create net economic benefits of several billion dollars by reducing medical and other expenses associated with high lead exposures.
As late as April 13, 2005, in response to questions posed as part of his confirmation process, Stephen Johnson assured Senators Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama that regulation was unnecessary because –
“[T]he Agency is developing an education and outreach campaign that will convey the benefits of the use of lead-safe work practices to minimize both workers’ and homeowners’ exposure to lead dust during renovation and remodeling. EPA is also targeting outreach efforts to expand consumer awareness…EPA plans to launch this material by this fall and will evaluate the effectiveness of this effort and will determine what additional steps may be necessary, including regulation.”
One month later, on May 16, the agency quietly filed a one-word Federal Register notice that the voluntary program had been “withdrawn” with no explanation or elaboration. The notice did cite the date of the action as April 1, 2005, days before Johnson wrote to the Senate extolling the voluntary approach.
“Besides the fact that EPA had budgeted no money for a massive consumer education program, the agency has no evidence that this approach has the slightest prospect of success,” added Ruch. “With each passing month due to EPA’s dithering, thousands of children will be exposed to lead dust that has permeated into their homes’ carpets, ductwork and soil, so that the children breathe the dust for months and years to come.”
In February 2000, the President’s Task Force on Environmental Health Risks and Safety Risks to Children set a national goal of eliminating childhood lead poisoning by 2010. While EPA still cites this 2010 national goal, the agency now officially has no plans for achieving it.