The Environmental Protection Agency has no current plans to revise key hazard standards that protect children from lead poisoning, despite calls for action from the agency's scientific advisers.
The result is that children will continue to be exposed to lead particles in house dust and yards at levels that can cause reduced intelligence, attention disorders and other health problems because the EPA's standards - set in 2001 - give a false sense of safety, scientists and child health advocates said.
"It's outrageous we aren't acting on what we know," said Howard Mielke, a soil contamination expert at Tulane University's medical school. Mielke served on an EPA lead advisory panel that gave input on revising the agency's house dust standard for lead more than two years ago. He said the soil standard also is too high to protect kids from harm.
A year ago this month, the EPA's Children's Health Protection Advisory Committee sent a letter to then-administrator Lisa Jackson calling for the agency's "immediate and urgent attention" to several recommendations to address lead poisoning issues, including revising the lead dust standards.
Yet any change in the EPA's lead standard for house dust, which is under review, appears to be years away and would likely face opposition from the home renovation and real estate industries, agency records indicate. The EPA told USA TODAY last week that no action is currently being taken to revise the federal hazard standard for soil - which allows five times more lead in play areas than what health modeling by the state of California shows is needed to protect children from losing 1 I.Q. point.
The EPA's standards for dust and soil are widely used as safety benchmarks when older homes are inspected for lead paint residues and when yards and playgrounds have their soil tested for contamination from paint, industrial sources or particles spewed decades ago from vehicles burning leaded gasoline. Any changes could result in more homes or yards requiring cleanup actions.
"We have thousands of risk assessors around the country determining whether you have risks and using clearance standards that are outdated," said Rebecca Morley, executive director of the National Center for Healthy Housing, a lead-poisoning prevention group. "They matter to consumers as a right-to-know issue: If you're told your home is safe and in fact it's not."
EPA officials declined requests for interviews but said in a statement: "EPA has a longstanding commitment to reducing childhood lead poisoning." The agency said it believes its existing soil standards are effective and that it is reviewing the dust standard and other agency policies in consultation with federal health officials "to see what changes may be needed in the future."
The EPA announced its standards for how much lead is dangerous in dust and soil in 2000. Since then, a growing body of research has shown children are significantly harmed when exposed to far lower levels of lead than previously realized.
Last May, for the first time since 1991, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention revised its standard for lead in a child's blood, cutting by half the amount that should trigger public health actions. About 500,000 U.S. children are estimated to have a blood-lead level of at least 5, the CDC's new standard, though the agency and its scientific advisers emphasized that research has not found any safe exposure level.
Records show the EPA has been reviewing the lead-standard for house dust since it received a formal petition in 2009 from a group of environmental and children's health advocates, including Morley's group. EPA's website says the agency doesn't anticipate announcing any potential changes until September 2014.
The petition said the EPA's 2001 house-dust standard, even at that time, was too high to protect children. That standard says EPA considers lead a hazard if there is greater than 40 micrograms of lead in dust per square foot on floors, and 250 micrograms of lead in dust per square foot on interior windowsills. The petition called for the floor standard to be reduced to 10 micrograms or less, and the windowsill standard to be dropped to 100 or less.
Even at a floor-dust-lead level of 12, a study cited by the petitioning groups found that 27% of children living in homes constructed before 1978 would be predicted to have blood-lead levels above what is now the CDC's new lead poisoning standard.
The EPA says it has been in the process of reviewing the science and seeking input to determine whether the standard needs to be changed and if it is technically possible to achieve lower levels of lead in house dust when homes with lead-based paint are renovated. "Before EPA can revise the current dust-lead hazard standards, there are important steps that need to be taken beforehand," the agency said in its statement.
Realtors and home builders told the EPA in 2009 that there was no need to revise the dust standard and had urged the agency to deny the petition.
The National Association of Realtors, in comments filed with EPA, said that a lower dust standard "dramatically" increase costs, paperwork and liability exposures for their members, as well as costs to consumers and homeowners. The National Association of Home Builders filed comments saying, among other things, that lowering the dust standard could drive up renovation costs and result in consumers hiring uncertified contractors or doing work themselves without proper safeguards.
The Realtors' association said Friday its position remains the same. "We believe that increased consumer education and the current law have been very successful at reducing incidents of childhood lead poisoning," said spokeswoman Sara Wiskerchen.
"We support eliminating the risk of lead poisoning in children," said Tabby Waqar, the builder's association environmental advocacy program manager. "Our only concern really with the rules is their applicability and where they're focused," she said.
Meanwhile the soil standards, which have not been the subject of a citizen petition, are not being revised. The EPA's hazard standard for bare soil where children play is 400 parts per million (ppm) of lead - and an average 1,200 ppm for the rest of the yard. Yet California - using computer modeling based on current science - has set a much lower standard for residential soil that state environmental health officials say is more protective of children: 80 ppm.
The reason: It takes just a tiny amount of lead dust ingested daily to poison a child. Picture a packet of artificial sweetener, which contains 1 gram of powder. A microgram is one-millionth of what's in that packet. Swallowing just 6 micrograms of lead particles a day over about three months can raise a child's blood-lead level by up to 1 point - which in turn can result in the loss of up to 1 IQ point, according to California's Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment.
That's why the state says it set its residential lead-soil standard at 80 ppm. "California is usually a pretty good bellwether of where we ought to be," said Ruth Ann Norton, executive director of the Coalition to End Childhood Lead Poisoning.
USA TODAY's recent "Ghost Factories" investigation, which tested soil in around forgotten lead factory sites across the country, found contaminated soil in several neighborhoods above both the California and EPA standards.
Contaminated house dust and soil - which children ingest when they put dirty hands and toys in their mouths - are among the most important sources for children being poisoned, said Bruce Lanphear, a leading medical researcher who has studied sources of lead in children's bodies and has served on EPA advisory panels. Lanphear said the current EPA standards aren't protective enough. "In every instance, the standards are based less on science and more on what the feds though was feasible," he said.
Kim Dietrich, an environmental health professor at the University of Cincinnati, who has served as a scientific adviser on CDC and EPA panels, said he thinks the standards should be revised. But he said he's skeptical there would be resources available to enforce any updates. He noted that Congress has eliminated nearly all of CDC's funding for federal lead poisoning prevention programs nationwide - yet the lead hazards remain.
"If we were terrorists, we could not have found a better way to distribute this poison. First, we put it in leaded gasoline so children were breathing it. Then we put it in paint to ensure it would be in homes for decades," he said.
And the exposures have real consequences for children, said Michael Weitzman, another scientist who has served as an EPA and CDC adviser. "We know at the lowest measurable levels, you get damage," said Weitzman, a professor of pediatrics and environmental medicine at New York University. "For the many things that hurt our children, lead is a thing that we know how to prevent the kids from being hurt."
Alison Young, USA TODAY