A panel of experts are advising federal environmental regulators to enact an array of revisions to lead exposure rules in the United States, including new standards for drinking water designed to protect children from lead poisoning risks.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Children’s Health Protection Advisory Committee met on February 1 and 2, to discuss the findings of its Lead Hazards Reduction Workgroup. The group began examining ways to reduce lead risks to children last year, following heightened attention brought by the drinking water crisis in Flint, Michigan, according to a report by Bloomberg BNA.
The committee, whose recommendations are not binding, called for the EPA to take action in a number of areas. Potentially the most sweeping recommendation was for a revision to the 1991 Lead and Copper Rule, which would reduce the acceptable level of lead in drinking water.
The panel also called for stronger Lead-based Paint Hazard Standards, which focus on levels of lead found in paint, dust and dirt. It also recommended updating brochures given to families buying or renting homes constructed before 1978, and called for the EPA to coordinate with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to make the reduction of lead in drinking water, homes and schools is a priority.
The EPA has already indicated its intention to revise the Lead and Copper Rule sometime this year. However, there are doubts as to whether that will move forward under the new administration of President Donald Trump.
In October, the EPA issued a white paper that called for changes to the Lead and Copper Rule which included a potential rule requiring municipal drinking water systems to develop plans to replace lead water lines.
The EPA began to look at the possible rule following recommendations from the National Drinking Water Advisory Council’s recommendations, based off a Science Advisory Board report in 2011.
The issue of lead in drinking water has taken on new urgency following the Flint water crisis, which began in April 2014, when government officials decided to switch the town from the Detroit Water System to water from the Flint River in an attempt to save money.
Residents immediately began complaining about cloudy and foul-smelling water, and many reported that developing skin lesions and rashes after exposure to the water. Subsequent investigations confirmed that residents have been exposed to high levels of lead in their drinking water, and a number of children now have dangerously high blood levels, with the rate of childhood lead poisoning in Flint doubling since the water source was switched.
An effort is underway to replace those lead water pipes in Flint, but they have reportedly been moving slowly.
Lead Poisoning Risks
Lead poisoning among children has been a serious health concern nationwide for decades, as it is known to increase the risk of nervous system injury, brain damage, seizures or convulsions, growth or mental retardation, coma and even death.
Prior to the Flint water crisis, one of the more common causes of of lead poisoning was lead-based paint, which was banned in the United States in 1978 due to the risk of severe and permanent brain damage and developmental problems, particularly in children. However, a number of older homes still contain the toxic paint on the walls, and if it flakes or peals off, young children could ingest the paint chips or breathe dust that comes from the paint, resulting in lead poisoning.
The CDC estimates that 535,000 children ages 1-5, or about 2.6% of such children in the U.S., have levels of lead in their blood that place them at risk for adverse health effects. To come up with that number, the CDC analyzed data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey from the years 1999 to 2002, and 2007 through 2010.
The majority of those children are poor and live in older urban areas, mainly in the inner city. Most are minorities, meaning such exposures add to numerous problems already plaguing inner city black and Latino youths, such as poverty, high crime and poor schools.
The CDC is reportedly weighing a reduction in what it considers elevated blood lead levels for children under age 6, from the current 5 micrograms per deciliter to 3.5 micrograms per deciliter. A Reuters report last month indicated that the CDC is talking with a number of groups about the potential drop in lead poisoning threshold, including public housing officials, state health officials, laboratories, and medical device manufacturers.