EPA criticized over new lead paint rule
By Deborah Zabarenko, Environment Correspondent
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency offered a new rule on Monday aimed at shielding children from the risks of lead-based paint, but a watchdog group said the rule needs to be tougher.
The rule affects professional contractors who renovate or repair homes, schools or child-care centers built before 1978, when lead-based paint was banned for residential use. Ordered by Congress in 1992, the rule takes effect in April 2010.
Nearly 38 million U.S. homes contain some lead-based paint, Assistant EPA Administrator James Gulliford said in a telephone briefing.
Gulliford acknowledged that this rule was supposed to be finalized in 1996, and said his agency had been "actively engaged" in the question since then.
The rule requires contractors who fix up older homes and other buildings occupied by children to take simple precautions to avoid creating and spreading lead dust. Gulliford estimated the cost was an average of $35 per renovation or repair job.
"In return, we protect more than 1.4 million children under the age of 6 ... we think it's a very cost-effective and very protective rule," Gulliford said.
Patrick MacRoy of the non-profit Alliance for Healthy Homes called the new rule "an important first step," but noted significant flaws in the rule after such a long delay.
ARE HOMES SAFE AFTER WORK IS DONE?
"After 16 years of waiting for this rule, I think we expected the rule to be stronger," MacRoy said in a telephone interview. "The clearest problem with the rule is the lack of a method to determine that homes are safe after the work is done."
Under procedures used by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, when workers remove lead from buildings, they must get so-called clearance, which involves taking a sample of lead dust to see how much is left behind, MacRoy said. The sample is checked by a laboratory for a fee of $5 to $10, he said.
But instead of this traditional clearance, the new rule requires cleaning verification, to be performed by the same people who do the removal of lead. This cleaning verification is to be done by wiping a wet cloth along surfaces in the building and seeing if the cloth is as white as a reference card provided by the EPA, MacRoy said.
Since 1992, at least 17 million children have been exposed to harmful levels of lead unnecessarily, he said. His organization noted in a statement that while parents have lately worried about the lead content of toys, most childhood exposure to lead is through paint in older homes.
Lead-based paint can cause irreversible brain damage in children, retard mental and physical development, reduce attention span and delay fetal development, according to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission.
In adults, lead poisoning can cause irritability, poor muscle coordination, nerve damage, reproductive problems such as a decreased sperm count and may also increase blood pressure.