Sixteen areas, including Los Angeles, Tampa and Cleveland, have unhealthful amounts of lead in the air that violate national standards, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced Tuesday.
Declared "nonattainment areas," those regions, located in 11 states, must require smelters and other industries to reduce the amount of lead they emit into the air. Under federal law, those areas have five years, until the end of 2015, to meet a new federal health standard.
Lead, at low levels, can damage children's developing brains, reducing their IQs and causing learning disabilities or behavioral problems. It also has been linked to high blood cancer in adults and is a probably human carcinogen.
Although virtually eliminated in gasoline 30 years ago, lead is still released by many factories, including smelters, battery manufacturers and recyclers, utilities and waste incinerators. It also is still found in general aviation fuel. Lead can be inhaled or ingested, since it can fall from the air and contaminate soil where children play.
A national health standard for lead originally was set in 1978, but research in recent years has shown that children are susceptible to neurological damage at lower levels, prompting the EPA in 2008 to strengthen the standard by tenfold.
"Based on new findings,notable neurobehavioral deficits appear to occur at distinctly lower levels of exposure than had been previously documented," the agency said in a 2006 report used to develop the new standard.
As a result, those 16 areas – which had existing air monitors that already were testing for lead – are now found to be out of compliance with the health limit. Most are in the Midwest, plus two in the Southeast, three in Pennsylvania and one in Texas.
Many more areas of the United States could soon join them. A second round of designations is expected in the fall of 2011, after the EPA analyzes data from new air monitors set up across the country in January.
The new standard is 0.15 micrograms of lead per cubic meter of air, down from the original 1.5 micrograms.
In the Los Angeles area, two large lead-acid battery recyclers are responsible for the high levels of the metal, said Sam Atwood, a spokesman for the South Coast Air Quality Management District.To meet the new federal standard, the AQMD last Friday adopted regulations that will reduce lead emissions from the companies, Quemetco Inc., in Vernon and Exide Technologies in the City of Industry.
Those companies must install equipment that reduces lead emitted from their recycling operations by January of next year. They also must develop contingency measures if their facility exceeds 80 percent of the EPA's lead standard, and notify the public if the lead-control devices are shut down. The total cost to the two companies is estimated at $410,000 in the first year, decreasing to $320,000 in the second year, according to an AQMD report.
Battery recyclers such as Exide and Quemetco receive spent lead-acid batteries and other materials, recycle them and recover the lead.
So far, Los Angeles County is the only area in the West to be identified as exceeding the standard.
Other non-attainment areas are Beaver and Berks counties, Penn.; Pike County, Ala.; Hillsborough County, Fla.; Sullivan County, Tenn.; Madison County, Ill.; Delaware County, Ind.; Dakota County, Minn.; Logan, Cuyahoga and Fulton counties, Ohio; Collin County, Texas; Dent, Iron, Reynolds and Jefferson counties, Mo. Only parts of each county are designated, depending on how far emissions from the industries travel.
This article originally ran at Environmental Health News, a news source published by Environmental Health Sciences, a nonprofit media company.