NOTE: The following is one of a series of case studies produced by the Union of Concerned Scientists' Scientific Integrity Program between 2004 and 2010 to document the abuses highlighted in our 2004 report, Scientific Integrity in Policy Making.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) may ignore the unanimous advice of its Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee (CASAC)1 and abandon 30 years of air quality control by removing lead, a powerful neurotoxin, from the list of pollutants it monitors under the Clean Air Act. Lead is the first pollutant regulated under the National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS) to be reviewed under a new "streamlined" assessment that significantly reduces the role of EPA staff scientists and independent scientific experts in drafting the new science-based regulations for air pollution.2
Ingestion or inhalation of even low levels of lead can cause osteoporosis, high blood pressure, heart disease, anemia, memory problems, and seizures in adults; children are at the greatest risk, as low levels of lead can cause lowered IQ levels and learning deficits.3 Polluters must follow stringent rules for reporting the amount of lead they release because lead is bioaccumulative, meaning it builds up in the environment and in people’s body tissue.4 The new policy-based procedure for reviewing NAAQS jeopardizes public health by failing to "accurately reflect the latest scientific knowledge"5 to keep the air we breathe safe, as required by the Clean Air Act.
In December 2006, the EPA released the first part of its review of the NAAQS for lead.6 Known as the "Staff Paper," this report is traditionally an "Assessment of Scientific and Technical Information" about the pollutant, crafted through a collaborative effort and rounds of peer review between EPA scientists and independent experts serving on CASAC.7 However, following a new EPA policy,8 the 2006 Lead Staff Paper was drafted as a "Policy Assessment of Scientific and Technical Information." 9
This slight change in title signifies a huge shift in methodology, in that it removes the independent assessment by CASAC,10 a federal science advisory committee chartered by the Federal Advisory Committee Act.11 Under the new rules, high-level political appointees create policy documents with input from agency scientists. CASAC is now only allowed to comment on completed draft documents during the general public notice-and-comment period.12
The effects of this new policy are clear: the 2006 draft policy Staff Paper, while acknowledging that there is no known safe level of exposure to lead, suggests that its final version will "evaluate removing lead from the criteria pollutant list and assess whether the revocation of the lead NAAQS is an appropriate option."13 This decision is not supported by current research, which has shown that the smallest doses of lead still have negative health effects.14
CASAC disagrees with considering removing the NAAQS for lead. Despite being removed from the crafting of this paper, the committee is conducting a thorough review of current lead poisoning science and has issued a first set of comments on the Staff Paper.15 CASAC writes that "the unanimous judgment of the Lead Panel is that lead should not be de-listed as a criteria air pollutant, as defined by the Clean Air Act, for which primary (public-health based) and secondary (public-welfare based) NAAQS are established, and that both the primary and secondary NAAQS should be substantially lowered."16
These recommendations are similar to those rejected by the EPA after the 1990 lead NAAQS review.17 In fact, the EPA has never updated its lead air pollution standard from the original 1978 target of 1.5 μg/m3 (micrograms of lead per cubic meter of air), a value which was derived from the then-current Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) threshold of 30 μg /dL dL (micrograms of lead per deciliter of blood). The CDC has repeatedly lowered its lead poisoning threshold in response to improving scientific understanding and detection methods, and now defines its level of concern at 10 μg /dL.18
The crux of the argument found in the 2006 Staff Paper for removing the lead NAAQS is the major reduction in airborne lead since the standard was first adopted in 1978.19 Federal regulation of lead certainly stands as one of the crowning achievements of the Clean Air Act. Over the last three decades, the quantity of lead in people's blood has been reduced by over 78 percent, primarily due to the mandated shift to unleaded gasoline.20 However, major sources of lead air pollution still exist, including industrial sources such as boilers and process heaters, iron and steel foundries, and lead smelters.21 Other sources include leaded airline fuel and lead deposits in roadside soils which can be disturbed by passing traffic and reintroduced into the air.22
In its comments on the 2006 Staff Paper, the scientific experts on CASAC explicitly reject the rationale that the successes of federal regulation so far can be used as support for removing the lead air pollution standards.23 They agree that stronger regulation under the Clean Air Act will be necessary to protect Americans from the continued health risk associated with lead exposure.24
By sidelining science in these crucial public health regulations, the EPA is increasing the risk of avoidable but irrevocable damage to the well-being of American families. By creating policy documents instead of science documents, and minimizing the input of independent scientists, the EPA is failing in its mandated duty to protect our health.
1. Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee (CASAC). Review of the 1st draft Lead Staff Paper and draft Lead Exposure and Risk Assessments. March 27, 2007. Accessed July 12, 2007.
2. EPA Deputy Administrator Marcus Peacock. Process for reviewing National Ambient Air Quality Standards. December 7, 2006. Accessed July 12, 2007.
3. EPA. Addressing lead at superfund sites. Accessed July 12, 2007.
4. EPA. TRI lead rule. Accessed July 31, 2007.
5. The Clean Air Act, including the 1990 amendments.
6. EPA. Dec 2006. Office of Air Quality Planning and Standards (OAQPS) staff paper – First draft. Review of the National Ambient Air Quality Standards for lead: Policy assessment of scientific and technical information. Accessed July 12, 2007.
7. EPA. Dec 1990. OAQPS Staff Paper – Final Draft. Review of the National Ambient Air Quality Standards for lead: Assessment of scientific and technical information.8. EPA Deputy Administrator Marcus Peacock.
9. EPA. Dec 2006. Staff Paper - First Draft.
10. EPA Deputy Administrator Marcus Peacock.
11. The Federal Advisory Committee Act. 1972.
12. EPA Deputy Administrator Marcus Peacock.
13. EPA. Dec 2006. Staff Paper - First Draft.
14. For recent peer reviewed papers, see: The American Association of Pediatrics, Committee on Environmental Health. Lead exposure in children: Prevention, detection, and management. Pediatrics 2005; 116:1036-1046. Also, Lanphear et al. Low-level environmental lead exposure and children's intellectual function: An international pooled analysis. Environmental Health Perspectives. Vol 113. No 7. July 2005. Also, Spivey, Angela. The Weight of Lead: Effects add up in adults. Environmental Health Perspectives. Vol 115, No 1. Jan 2007.
17. EPA. Dec 1990. OAQPS Staff Paper – Final Draft.
18. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Lead FAQS: Why not change the blood level of concern at this time?Accessed July 12, 2007.
19. EPA. Dec 2006. Staff Paper - First Draft.
20. EPA. EPA's efforts to reduce lead. Accessed July 12, 2007.
21. EPA. EPA's efforts to reduce lead.
22. EPA. EPA's efforts to reduce lead. See also EPA. Dec 2006. Staff Paper - First Draft.