US Federal Rule Could Force Millions of Homes, Schools to Remove Lead Dust

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) on July 11, 2023 announced new proposed rules for lead paint in a bid to prevent hundreds of thousands of children from being exposed to the toxic substance.

Officials predict that the rule will reduce lead exposures for 250,000 to 500,000 children younger than the age of 6 each year, the agency said in a statement. The mandate would enhance the EPA’s regulations under section 402 of the Toxic Substances Control Act, which would revise the standards for how much lead dust can be on floors, window sills, and other locations in older buildings.

“The Biden–Harris Administration is taking a whole-of-government approach to ensure that the most vulnerable among us—our children—are protected from exposure to lead,” EPA Deputy Administrator Janet McCabe said in the statement. “This proposal to safely remove lead paint along with our other efforts to deliver clean drinking water and replace lead pipes will go a long way toward protecting the health of our next generation of leaders.”

According to the EPA, the rule would reduce the “dust-lead hazard standards” to three micrograms per square foot from 10 micrograms per square foot for floors and to 20 micrograms per square foot from 100 micrograms per square foot for window sills “to any reportable level greater than zero in recognition of the fact that there is no level of lead in dust that has been found to be safe for children.” For window troughs, the lead dust levels would be lowered to 25 micrograms per square foot from 400 micrograms under the rule.

The federal government banned lead-based paints in 1978, but it’s estimated that 31 million pre-1978 homes still have them. And 3.8 million of those homes have a child younger than the age of 6 living there, according to the EPA.

“Lead exposure can pose a significant health and safety threat to children and can cause irreversible and life-long health effects, including behavioral problems, lower IQ, slowed growth and more,” the EPA statement reads. “Young children are particularly at risk of higher exposure to ingesting lead-containing dust.”

A Government Accountability Office (GAO) report (pdf) released in 2019 estimated that about 15 million U.S. students were enrolled in school districts that included buildings that still had lead-based paint.

“There is no safe level of lead,” the American Association of Pediatrics website reads.

It notes that at age 2, the risk for lead exposure often peaks and that lead can interfere with critical central nervous system development, including the “brain’s volumes and alterations on its microstructure.”

Lead can also interfere with the body’s capacity to absorb iron and vitamin D and can harm the kidneys, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). There have also been studies linking lead exposure to a variety of cardiovascular disorders, it noted.

The Trump administration also mandated more stringent lead dust rules in 2020, also arguing that the rule would protect children from harmful exposure to the toxic metal. At the time, some environmentalist groups criticized the Trump administration by saying that the rule didn’t go far enough.

However, EPA limits could force millions of homeowners or child care facilities to inspect for lead dust and pay for cleaning, according to Michal Freedhoff, assistant administrator for the EPA’s Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention.

“It dramatically increases the number of facilities that could be required to inspect and remediate lead paint hazards,” Ms. Freedhoff told The New York Times about the proposed rule change.

An estimate published by The Washington Post states that possibly millions of U.S. homes, schools, and businesses may have to essentially eliminate lead dust under the EPA plan. Home improvement website Angi estimates that lead removal services can cost $8 to $17 per square foot, with a total range of $1,445 to $5,412 depending on the house, square footage, and other factors.

“A lead paint removal job runs around $3,400, but you could pay as little as $100 or as much as $20,000, depending on the extent of the work,” an article posted to the website reads. “If you discover lead paint in your home, there are a few methods you can opt for to rid your home of the nasty substance, but we recommend hiring a lead paint removal pro to ensure the job is done correctly.”

However, it noted that some homeowners might have to demolish the entire surface containing the lead-based paint, costing an additional $1,000 to $15,000.

The EPA’s latest proposal was triggered by a 2019 lawsuit filed by the Sierra Club and other environmental groups that alleged that the EPA has long set too-high limits for lead-based paint in homes and buildings. In what was described as a win for the environmental groups, the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco ruled in 2021 that EPA must reconsider its lead-dust health standards and update its rules.

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