The Environmental Protection Agency wanted six years to study and review a 17-year-old rule on lead paint and dust exposure. But on Wednesday, an appeals court ruled that the agency must now update the rule in the next 90 days and implement a final regulation one year after that. “Since January of 2001, scientific research has further advanced our understanding of the dangerousness of lead, yet the EPA’s standards have not changed,” reads the ruling by the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. “The children exposed to lead poisoning due to the failure of EPA to act are severely prejudiced by EPA’s delay.”
The dangers of lead are well-documented. The EPA itself has called lead poisoning “the number one environmental health threat in the U.S. for children ages 6 and younger.” The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention details the extent of the problem: “Today at least 4 million households have children living in them that are being exposed to high levels of lead. There are approximately half a million U.S. children ages 1-5 with blood lead levels above 5 micrograms per deciliter (µg/dL), the reference level at which CDC recommends public health actions be initiated.” Those children are often fare even worse than those living in Flint, Michigan, the city most notoriously known for its lead-tainted tap water. A Reuters analysis released in November found 3,810 neighborhoods with childhood lead poisoning rates “at least double those found across Flint, Michigan, during the peak of that city’s water contamination crisis in 2014 and 2015.”
And yet, the EPA has consistently failed to update standards for lead exposure in children in the last 17 years. That’s not just because of the Trump administration; the Obama administration also delayed updating lead standards for six years. The last action was taken in 2010, when Obama’s EPA asked its scientific advisors to evaluate a proposed approach. After that evaluation, however, work on updating the rule halted, which the Environmental Defense Fund blames on “limited resources” within EPA.
The government seems to agree that the rule needs updating, as Wednesday’s ruling noted: “EPA does not appear to dispute the factual record ... showing that, according to modern scientific understanding, neither the dust-lead hazard standard nor the lead-based paint standard are sufficient to protect children.” The EPA’s argument is that it wants time to develop its own standard. But Trump’s EPA also requested a delay of a different regulation for lead in drinking water, proposed after the Flint water crisis, and in April proposed to eliminate programs intended to limit children’s exposure to lead-based paint. Millions of children in the U.S. simply can’t afford to wait any longer.