The federal government's new standards aimed at reducing the amount of lead in air are good news for children, for whom air pollution has been one of the big remaining sources of exposure to this toxic metal. Twelve states will violate the new standard, which cuts the amount of lead allowed in air by 90 percent. Alabama, Colorado, Florida, Illinois, Indiana, Minnesota, Missouri, New Jersey, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, and Texas are the dirty dozen; they have factories, such as lead smelters or battery recycling operations, that emit lead. Children can be exposed to airborne lead by breathing particles or by touching dirt outside or surfaces inside where lead particles land, then putting their hands in their mouths.
The Environmental Protection Agency got moving because of a court order that came out of a lawsuit on behalf of people who lived near a lead smelter in Herculaneum, Mo., where children had elevated amounts of lead in their blood. "This is a big step forward for children's health," says Gina Solomon, a physician and senior scientist for the Natural Resources Defense Council, which lobbied for tighter lead controls. But, she adds, the reductions won't be fully in force until 2017, "too late for an entire generation of children." (Here's the NRDC's map showing lead-tainted sites throughout the country.)
This is the first mandated reduction in airborne lead since 1978, when the feds started phasing out leaded gasoline. Public-health doctors made the case that airborne lead from car exhaust permanently lowered children's IQ and damaged their memory. From the mid-1970s to the mid-1980s, the amount of lead in Americans' blood dropped by 50 percent, according to the EPA. Leaded gas was last sold in the United States in 1996. Some economists have even argued that the big drop in crime in the 1990s could be attributed to decreased exposure to airborne lead in childhood. Alas, lead is still widely used as a gasoline additive in China and other countries; in the developing world, most children under 5 have blood lead levels exceeding World Health Organization standards.
Unfortunately, children in the United States are still exposed to lead in old house paint, old pipes, and some toys and jewelry. To protect your children from lead exposure: