EPA Faulted for Not Doing Enough to Protect Kids Against Lead at Home

Published September 10, 2019
By Tom Johnson

Without effective oversight federal agency can’t monitor remediation efforts. Meanwhile, blood-lead levels in more than 2 million children have climbed

The Environmental Protection Agency’s office of inspector general yesterday faulted the federal agency for having an ineffective strategy to enforce removal of lead- based paints from homes, the major source of exposure to unsafe levels of lead among children across the nation.

Without an effective strategy for its so-called Renovation, Repair and Painting program, the EPA cannot determine whether its approach is achieving its intended purpose of protecting the public, particularly when it comes to housing and child-occupied facilities, an audit concluded.

“The RRP program lacks defined objectives, goals, and measurable outcomes to track progress,’’ said Sarah Davidson, a program analyst with the Office of Audit and Evaluation.

Too little, too late
For instance, it has been nearly a decade since the agency estimated the universe of licensed renovators. In 2010, there were 320,000. The audit found too few resources were available to adequately implement the program, according to what regional staff told the inspector general.

“It’s a massively missed opportunity to lower lead-blood levels in kids,’’ said Ruth Anne Norton, president and CEO of Green & Healthy Homes Initiative, the nation’s largest healthy-home organization. “We must ensure contractors are properly trained and doing the right thing.’’

An estimated 38 million homes nationwide used lead-based paint before it was banned in 1978. Older homes are more likely to have lead-based paint. There is no safe level of lead exposure, which has the potential to cause slower growth in children, lower IQs, and behavioral problems.

An estimated 18 million renovation projects involving lead paint occur each year, according to the agency. The audit found the program does not review inspections or evaluate progress toward reducing disparities in blood levels among children.

“Poisoning from lead paint especially continues to harm kids here in New Jersey and across the country, and our federal government must absolutely do better,’’ said Staci Berger, president and CEO of the Housing & Community Development Network of New Jersey.

Policymakers long have recognized the perils associated with lead, but efforts to reduce exposure have had mixed results here in New Jersey and elsewhere. Peeling lead-based paints have long been identified as a primary source of exposure to lead for children, although lead-tainted drinking water has emerged as a huge problem in Newark and Flint, MI.

Brick City gets the lead out
Newark is moving to replace up to 18,000 lead service lines suspected of contaminating drinking water in homes, a problem it underplayed for a couple of years despite warnings by the Natural Resources Defense Council.

When it comes to lead-based paint and potable water contaminated by lead leaching from service lines, the problems appear to have been magnified by government efforts to fix them, advocates said.

“Based on the failures and shortcomings described by the inspector general, it appears that the Trump administration’s Lead Action Plan was primarily a public relations tool rather than a document to focus and prioritize the agency’s efforts to reduce children’s exposure to lead from these renovation projects,’’ said Tom Neltner, chemical policy director at the Environmental Defense Fund.

Data released this spring from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention revealed that blood-lead levels increased in more than 2 million children in 2015-2016, the most recent blood-lead monitoring results available.

“If the Trump administration truly wants to prioritize lead exposure — as it has repeatedly touted — then making meaningful improvements to ensure compliance with this critical rule should be a priority,’’ Neltner said. “Without changing course, the progress we’ve made on reducing lead exposure will falter — and children will pay the price.’’