Press Releases

EPA Challenged Over Failure to Implement Clean Air Act Standards for Lead

WASHINGTON— Public-interest groups filed a notice today of their intent to sue the Environmental Protection Agency for failing to fully implement new air-quality standards for lead, required under the Clean Air Act. The EPA revised 30-year-old air standards for lead in 2008, lowering allowable airborne lead levels by 90 percent to protect health and environmental quality. The agency was required to ensure that within three years all 50 states submit effective plans to meet the new standards, but 34 states have not yet complied and the EPA has failed to keep critically important lead reductions on track.

“There’s overwhelming scientific consensus that no level of lead exposure is safe for children,” said Jeff Miller of the Center for Biological Diversity. “The EPA has to ensure that states enforce modern air-quality standards right away to reduce toxic airborne lead. The agency’s own Children’s Health Protection Advisory Committee recommends cutting allowable lead levels another 97 percent to keep kids away from lead.”

“There is no excuse for delay when it comes to our children’s health,” said Rick Franco of the Center for Environmental Health. “EPA can no longer sit by while polluting facilities poison the air our children breathe.”

The Clean Air Act requires the EPA to identify and set “National Ambient Air Quality Standards” for harmful pollutants such as lead, a neurotoxin that causes a wide range of severe health problems and reduces young children’s IQs. Since the phaseout of leaded gasoline, most airborne lead emissions come from lead smelters, waste incinerators, utilities and lead-acid battery makers. The EPA says 16,000 sources in the United States are still emitting 1,300 tons of lead into the air yearly; more than 300,000 American children display adverse effects from lead poisoning. Minority and low-income communities in urban areas are disproportionately exposed to elevated lead levels.

Lead is an extremely toxic element that attacks organs and many different body systems. It does not break down in the environment, and small particles can be inhaled directly or ingested after settling onto surfaces or soils. Most lead exposure for children comes from indoor dust and soil. Children are more susceptible to the damaging effects of airborne lead than adults. Lead disrupts their development, causing slow growth, development defects and damage to the brain and nervous system. Some recent studies even link elevated lead exposure with aggression, delinquent behavior, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and criminal behavior.

Today’s notice was filed by the Center for Biological Diversity and the Center for Environmental Health.


Lead air standards were originally set in 1978. Ending use of leaded gasoline, lead paint and other regulations on lead emissions reduced airborne lead concentrations by 98 percent from 1970 to 2000. The percentage of American children with elevated blood-lead levels dropped from 88.2 percent in the 1970s to 4.4 percent by 1995, when the EPA finally banned all lead in motor vehicle gasoline.

More than 6,000 scientific studies have been published since 1990 showing that young children suffer harm at much lower blood lead levels than was recognized when the old standard was set in 1978. The EPA revised the lead standards in 2008 after concluding risks from airborne lead exposure to children are unacceptably high and the standards were inadequate to protect public health.

The effects of lead are not limited to public health. As the EPA noted when promulgating the 2008 lead standards, lead is “persistent in the environment and accumulates in soils, aquatic systems (including sediments), and some biological tissues of plants, animals and other organisms, thereby providing long-term, multi-pathway exposures to organisms and ecosystems.” Ecosystems near sources of lead emissions experience “decreases in species diversity, loss of vegetation, changes to community composition, decreased growth of vegetation, and increased number of invasive species.” Scientific studies have also expressed concern about sublethal effects of atmospheric lead on wildlife.

States are required to submit implementation plans for new federal air quality standards for pollutants within 3 years. The EPA is then required to make a finding whether state implementation plans are complete or whether any state failed to submit a plan. The air standards for lead were revised in November 2008, and the EPA finding was due by May 12, 2012.

Thirty-four states have failed to submit a plan or revision that fully addresses the new lead air-quality standards: Alabama, Alaska, Colorado, District of Columbia, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Mississippi, Montana, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, South Dakota, Utah, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, Wisconsin and Wyoming, along with the U.S. territories of Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. The EPA also failed to take final action on plan submittals by Kentucky and Tennessee.

The Center for Biological Diversity is a national, nonprofit conservation organization with more than 375,000 members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places.

The Center for Environmental Health protects people from toxic chemicals and promotes business products and practices that are safe for public health and the environment.