Lead Poisoning: Clean Air Vs. the EPA

While new research confirms the powerful influence that childhood lead poisoning has on violent crime and learning ability, the industry argues that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) should do away with standards limiting the amount they dump in the air. This, despite knowledge that lead damages virtually every organ system, including the central nervous system, cardiovascular system, red blood cells, and kidneys.

Its toxicity to those working in the lead industry has been known at least since 1839. In 1904, an Australian physician, J. Lockhart Gibson, wrote about childhood lead poisoning among his patients. Criticism of the lead industry was a major factor in 1928 formation of the Lead Industries Association (LIA), which worked to suppress information whenever it could.

The LIA was highly successful in campaigns to influence public opinion and halt or reverse legislation to regulate lead. With the growth of the automobile industry after WWII, people were subjected to an even greater source of lead poisoning.

The year 1978 is often given as the time that U.S. law banned lead from paint. That interpretation is deceptive. The use of lead in house paint had begun to decline long before. A zinc-based compound made its debut around 1920 as a substitute for white lead pigments. Latex paint came into use during the 1930s and was the main interior wall paint by the 1950s. The 1978 ban on the use of lead in paint may have had less to do with a courageous Congress standing up to the industry than it did with the paint industry no longer needing lead. Legislation also phased out lead in gasoline, which fell by 70 percent from 1975 to 1984 and was ended by 1996.

Poisoning at Low Lead Levels

Despite efforts by the industry to discredit research, medical information on lead has resulted in a continuous lowering of blood lead levels considered to be "safe." Before 1971, a child had to have 60 ug/dL (micrograms of lead per deciliter of blood) to be considered lead poisoned. That year it dropped to 40 ug/dL, then to 30 ug/dL, and then to 25 mg/dL. The "level of concern" for lead adopted by the Center for Disease Control by 1991 was 10 ug/dL.

The CDC has refused to change that definition for almost 20 years, despite massive evidence that lead has more toxic effects at lower levels than previously thought. Some of the most important work demonstrates how extremely low levels of lead damage intellectual development.

Investigations consistently show that the greater a child’s blood lead level is, the lower is the child’s IQ, and the largest damage to IQ is in the 1-10 ug/dL range (which the CDC does not consider to be a "level of concern"). Typical is an investigation headed by Richard Canfield, which found: an increase of blood lead from 1 to 10 ug/dL was associated with a decline of 7.4 IQ points; an increase in blood lead from 10 to 30 ug/dL predicts an additional loss of 2.5 IQ points; and the greatest damage to reading and math scores was for blood lead below 5 ug/dL. The authors concluded "that there may be no threshold for the adverse consequences of lead exposure and that lead-associated impairments may be both persistent and irreversible."

These studies are so powerful that lead activists sometimes neglect the recent findings on adults. For example, 2006 research reported in the Journal of the American Heart Association demonstrated that, compared to those with extremely low levels, adults with blood lead levels of 3.6-10 ug/dL were 2.5 times more likely to die of a heart attack, 89 percent more likely to die of stroke, and 55 percent more likely to die of cardiovascular disease.

So what is the CDC doing with this accumulating evidence of the toxicity of lead at levels below 10 ug/dL? It is using doublespeak to make the problem worse. Health agencies across the U.S. know full well that "level of concern" is a technical term referring to a specific concentration of lead, but that most people interpret it as a dividing line between "lead poisoned" and "not lead poisoned."

Many agencies do not report the actual blood lead concentration in children and tell parents their child does not have enough lead for a "level of concern" if tests show lead below 10 ug/dL. Almost all parents hear such information to mean "My child is not lead poisoned." Since no one tells them that intellectual damage can occur with low levels of lead, parents often conclude that nothing needs to be done to reduce their child’s exposure.

Lead & Violence Studies

The most dramatic line of research makes a strong connection between lead exposure during childhood and violent crime during adulthood. Herbert Needleman’s work showed that 12-to-18-year-olds who had been through Pittsburgh’s juvenile justice system were four times more likely than matched controls to have high bone lead concentrations. Of the 3,111 counties in the U.S., those with the highest murder rates have air lead concentrations four times as high as counties with the lowest murder rates.

The most striking data comes from comparing lead exposure during early childhood to crime rates two decades later. In an Environmental Research article, Rick Nevin traced lead exposure for over 100 years. This included two time periods for peak lead: exposure from massive use in house paint during the early 20th century and exposure from leaded gasoline after WWII. For both, he calculated the amount of lead children were exposed to and murder rates 21 years later.

Part of his 2000 study charts total per capita lead exposure from 1876 through 1984 and, superimposed on top of that data is the murder rate 21 years later. The figure shows exposure to lead from house paint increasing through 1916 and a parallel increase in the murder rate (with a 21-year delay). As substitutes for lead in paint were found, exposure declined after WWI and murder rates showed a similar decline (with the 21 year lag). As lead exposure again increased with its use in gasoline, there was again a 21-year lagged increase in the murder rate. Then, lead exposure declined as it was phased out of gasoline during 1975-85.

In a 2007 study, Nevin reported data for nine countries that phased lead out of gasoline at different times. For each country, increases and decreases in gasoline lead were followed by increases and decreases in violent crime—but the effects were only found by using a two decade delay between lead exposure and crime.

One of the most definitive studies to date was published in May 2008 by a team coordinated by Kim Dietrich. It looked at 250 children born between 1979 and 1984. Each blood lead level increase of 5 ug/dL during early childhood was associated with an increased likelihood of being arrested for a violent crime at 19 to 24 years of age.

The effects of lead on violence is somewhat like alcohol. Alcohol does not automatically cause violence. A passive person will not become violent when drunk. Alcohol inhibits the inhibitors. It interferes with several brain processes, including the production of the brain chemical serotonin, associated with impulse control. A person who has learned to be violent will be less able to control anger when drunk.

Similarly, lead poisoning does not automatically cause violence. But if a lead poisoned child grows up in a violent society, as an adult the person will be less able to control violent behavior. Being drunk has an acute effect on impulse control. Being lead poisoned has a chronic effect. Being drunk, being lead poisoned, and having been exposed to thousands of hours of violent TV is a very bad combination.

Whither the EPA?

At its June 12, 2008 public hearing on air lead standards, the EPA distributed a Fact Sheet, which indicated it was aware of findings on lead poisoning and intellectual development, somewhat familiar with recent research on adult health, and totally clueless concerning new findings of lead’s effects on crime and violence. It made no mention of the 20 year time lag between lead poisoning as a child and crime as a young adult, which is the hallmark of research since 2000.

Let’s back up and see why that June 12 hearing took place. It began with the Clean Air Act of 1970 which mandates the EPA to review air quality standards every five years to make sure that the standards reflect current scientific findings. Industry is only allowed to release lead into the air if it is within the maximum allowable levels the EPA sets in the National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS). Despite continuous new understanding of lead poisoning effects, the EPA has not reviewed its lead NAAQS for 30 years. In 1978 it set the level as 1.5 ug/m3 (micrograms per cubic meter). According to the Missouri Coalition for the Environment, "Lead pollution comes out of over 16,000 pollution sources, including smelters, refineries, cement kilns and airports." (Lead is still allowed in aviation fuel.)

The EPA’s current air quality standard limiting lead is keyed to the CDC’s blood lead standard. That standard was 30 ug/dL in 1978 but the EPA has seen it lowered twice while doing nothing about the NAAQS.

The EPA’s inaction on lead in the air particularly angered environmentalists in Missouri. Not only does St. Louis have a very high rate of childhood lead poisoning, Missouri is the source of over 95 percent of the lead mined in the U.S. The Doe Run Company’s lead smelter in Herculaneum, Missouri is the only industrial facility that has received a "non-attainment" designation for meeting NAASQ requirements.

Jack and Leslie Warden lived in Herculaneum for years. Angry that they were forced to move by the town’s high levels of lead, on May 27, 2004 they jointly filed a lawsuit with the Missouri Coalition for the Environment requesting that the U.S. District Court order the EPA to comply with the Clean Air Act and issue updated NAAQS requirements.

On September 14, 2005, U.S. District Judge E. Richard Webber found "that the EPA has blatantly disregarded Congress’ mandate that the lead NAAQS requirements be reviewed at five year intervals." He required the EPA to pay attorney’s fees for those bringing suit and ordered the agency to propose new rules by May 2008, allow public comment for 60 days, and complete a final updated rule by September 1, 2008.

Floating a Lead Balloon

With the rusty wheels of change finally starting to turn, the lead industry zipped into action, outdoing its own history of disregarding public health for over 100 years. The Battery Council International (BCI) is a combination of smelters, lead battery makers, distributors and suppliers. On July 12, 2006, Timothy J. LaFond, chair of BCI’s Environmental Committee, wrote the EPA that "lead ambient air concentrations in the United States have been dramatically reduced since 1970." In what must be one of the most brash polluter recommendations of all time, the BCI spokesperson concluded that the EPA should "delete lead from the list of criteria pollutants." That’s right. The lead industry reasoned that since air lead levels have dropped due to taking lead out of gasoline, smelters should be able to put lead back into the air.

In December 2006 the EPA began floating the idea of eliminating air lead standards altogether. That thought flew over the environmental community like a lead balloon. With people writing the EPA that they were madder than hell, the agency did some back-peddling, some rewording, and some doublespeaking.

Pressured to give the appearance of requiring a huge reduction in lead emissions, the EPA proposed to revise its standard from 1.5 ug/m3 to a range of 0.10 to 0.30 ug/m3, but announced that it would be "taking comments on alternative levels up to 0.50 ug/m3."

This means that the EPA would not incorporate scientific findings that lead is toxic at any level, would propose the least reduction it could get away with, and would invite industry to defend the ridiculously high level of 0.50 ug/m3. A broad coalition of environmental groups pointed out that using a "range" of levels is a backhanded way of allowing the maximum of the "range" to become the norm. Though most environmentalists asked for a maximum lead emission of 0.20 ug/m3, some EPA staff conceded that it could be set as low as 0.02 ug/m3.

Currently, the amount of lead released into the air is calculated as a three month average, meaning that a dangerous spike of air lead can be covered up by lower readings from adjacent months. At the June 12 hearing, environmentalists also asked for monthly averages of emissions, which would partly reduce the problem of lead "spikes."

The Gluttony of Overproduction

A big problem with current measurement of lead emissions is the very large number of facilities that are nowhere near a lead monitor and whose emissions are unrecorded. The tightest standards in the world will be pointless if emissions are not measured. So when I gave testimony on behalf of the Green Party of St. Louis at the June 12 hearings, I included statements that the EPA should halt the operation of any facility which emits lead if it is located in a state without any lead monitors or emits more than 5 tons of lead per year if it is not within one mile of a lead monitor.

It is impossible to protect public health unless all consumer goods are manufactured with the least toxicity and the longest durability as is possible. Corporations have long shown themselves incapable of making decisions to protect human health and a government controlled by corporations cannot possibly protect its citizens from them.

Communities and unions need to begin asking how we can produce fewer goods, produce different goods, and design products that endure. And they need to be asking if they, rather than corporations, should be making decisions concerning all phases of production.

In Greek mythology, the greedy King Sisyphus was doomed to forever roll a heavy stone uphill only to watch it roll down again. If we fail to take decision-making power out of the hands of corporate boards, struggles against toxins merely share the Labor of Sisyphus.



Don Fitz is editor of Synthesis/Regeneration: A Magazine of Green Social Thought and produces Green Time TV in St. Louis.