EPA Sets New National Air Pollution Standard for Lead

[EPA press release - September 29, 1978]

Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Douglas M. Costle today announced EPA's final atmospheric air quality standard to protect the public health from exposure to airborne lead, a pollutant that may, even at low levels of exposure, harm human nervous and blood-forming systems. This is the first National ambient air standard EPA has issued since 1971.

"It is well known that at certain levels lead is highly toxic and can lead to permanent health damage or even death," Costle said. "What we are finding increasingly, moreover, is that even low levels of lead may have more harmful and persistent effects than we thought previously."

The final standard for airborne lead is 1.5 micrograms lead per cubic meter of air. This is the same standard proposed by EPA December 14, 1977, except that the proposal was figured on a monthly average, while the final standard is figured on a three-month average.

"In establishing the final standard," Costle said, "EPA determined that of the general population, young children (age 1-5 years) are the most sensitive to lead exposure. In 1970, there were 20 million children in the U.S. under five years old, of whom 12 million lived in urban areas and 5 million lived in center cities where lead exposure is the highest. The standard is based on preventing children in the U.S. from exceeding a blood level of 30 micrograms lead per deciliter of blood. Blood lead levels above 30 micrograms are associated with an impairment in cell function which EPA regards as adverse to the health of chronically exposed children. There are a number of other adverse health effects associated with blood lead levels above 30 micrograms in children as well as in the general population, including the possibility that nervous system damage may occur in children even without overt symptoms of lead poisoning.

"About 90 percent of total air lead emissions come from automobile exhaust, which is the chief contributor in urban areas," Costle said. "EPA has been addressing the urban lead problem through its program to phase down leaded gasoline. So far that program appears to be successfully reducing lead levels in urban children.

"However, we face a very different set of problems regarding the non-ferrous smelter industry and other industrial sources of lead. In the U.S. there are now six primary lead smelters, 16 primary copper smelters and over 50 secondary lead smelters. These sources will require substantial controls on their current emissions in order to meet the ambient standard. I want to emphasize that we are dealing with two separate components of the environmental lead problem, and we are trying to provide two separate and appropriate solutions."

EPA anticipates that its present regulations phasing out lead in gasoline by October 1979, in conjunction with the controls on stationary sources of lead, will be sufficient to attain the ambient lead standards in urban areas by 1982.

"Most primary smelters have their greatest impact in more sparsely populated areas," Costle said. "Our preliminary assessments indicate that some non-ferrous smelters may not be able to technically or economically achieve the standard. But our information on how bad the environmental problem is and how much it will cost to control these sources adequately is not good enough.

"We intend to pursue a reasonable and responsible course in finding ways for this industry to comply with the law's health protection objectives. We do not believe that a major disruption of this industry is an acceptable consequence and we are determined to explore every avenue to avoid such an impact while still protecting public health.

"During the next 6 to 9 months, we will work closely with the states and the affected industry to develop a plant-by-plant analysis of how serious the problems are, and what would be a reasonable compliance program for each smelter. We want to formulate a control strategy which will avoid significant disruption in the lead and smelting industries without compromising our goal of protecting public health. If our study of these impacts over the next 18 months indicates economic effects unwarranted by the health protection involved, we will consider a wide range of remedial action, including the possibility of seeking revisions to the Clean Air Act.

"The Occupational Safety and Health Administration is in the final stages of setting a standard for air lead concentrations in the workplace," Costle said. "We have been coordinating with OSHA in developing our mutual standards and intend to continue working together on compliance strategies so that the non-ferrous smelter and lead industries are faced with one coordinated government program to reduce the dangers of lead."

In 1975, the Natural Resources Defense Council and others brought suit against EPA in U.S. District Court, Southern District, New York, to control lead as a national ambient air quality standard under Section 109 of the Clean Air Act. As a result of Court action on this suit, EPA began developing a lead standard.

Lead enters the human body principally through ingestion and inhalation, with subsequent absorption into the blood stream and distribution to all body tissues. Exposure to airborne lead can occur directly by inhalation, or indirectly by ingestion of lead-contaminated food, water, or non-food materials including dust and soil. Lead accumulates in the human body throughout life, to a large extent immobilized in bone. A significant amount of body lead is in the blood and soft tissues.

Numerous studies have demonstrated that exposure to lead adversely affects human health. Lead has its most pronounced effects on the hematopoietic (blood-forming), nervous and renal (kidney) systems, but may also harm the reproductive, endocrine, hepatic, cardiovascular, immunologic and gastrointestinal systems. Exposure to high levels of lead may have severe and sometimes fatal consequences such as brain disease, colic, palsy, and anemia.

There are multiple sources of lead exposure besides air pollution. Lead is found in paint, inks, water supply and distribution systems, pesticides, and fresh and processed food.

Besides the ambient air standard proposed today, EPA has taken other actions to control lead in the environment.

In 1975, EPA set national drinking water standards for lead, and by 1979 will develop industrial water pollution rules for this pollutant. The Agency has also issued regulations controlling lead arsenate pesticides and requiring safe disposal procedures for all lead-containing pesticides. Also, the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act of 1976 authorizes EPA to regulate the recycling and disposal of used crankcase oil, lead acid batteries, and other wastes containing lead.

Other EPA regulations for control of air emissions of sulfur dioxide and particulate matter require pollution control technology that also reduces lead emissions from industrial facilities.

Other federal agencies which have or will be taking actions concerning lead are the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Consumer Product Safety Commission, the Food and Drug Administration, and the Center for Disease Control.

Four states currently have lead air quality standards of their own: California, Pennsylvania, Montana and Oregon.

Accompanying the standard, to appear in the Federal Register, are regulations setting forth requirements for States to follow in developing, adopting and submitting acceptable implementation plans for meeting EPA's standard. These plans have to be submitted for EPA approval by June 1979, and States must eventually meet the ambient standard by 1982.

The other pollutants for which EPA has ambient standards in effect (since April 30, 1971) are particulate matter, sulfur dioxide, hydrocarbons, nitrogen dioxide, carbon monoxide and photochemical oxidants.