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E.P.A. Proposes New Limits on Lead in the Air, the First Revision in 30 Years

May 2, 2008

The New York Times

WASHINGTON - For the first time in 30 years, the Environmental Protection Agency has proposed a new limit for lead concentrations in the air.

The agency is under court order to complete a new rule by Sept. 1, because of a lawsuit brought by environmentalists.

Air, however, is no longer the most common source of major exposure to lead, which can cause I.Q. loss, kidney damage and other serious health problems. In most places, water and lead paint are more troublesome sources.

Lead emissions in the air have dropped by more than 97 percent in the last three decades, because the United States banned lead as an additive in gasoline. That step was taken to allow cars to have catalytic converters, which cut the ingredients of smog, and reduced lead in the air as a side benefit.

Still, high lead concentrations exist in scattered places with iron and steel foundries, copper smelters, mining operations, waste incinerators and concrete plants, according to Lydia Wegman, an expert at the Office of Air Quality Planning and Standards. In addition, she said, gasoline with lead is still used in small airplanes.

Depending on the level at which the new standard is set, officials can identify two dozen counties that would be out of compliance. But they cannot be certain how many other counties may fail because the network of monitoring stations has been cut back.

Two counties, Jefferson in Missouri and Delaware in Indiana, still violate the old standard, which is 1.5 micrograms per cubic meter of air.

On Thursday, the E.P.A. proposed a standard between 0.1 and 0.3 micrograms per cubic meter, or one-5th to one-15th of the old level.

Robert J. Meyers, the assistant administrator for air and radiation, said the standard was reviewed in the early 1990s but not revised. Late last year, the E.P.A. raised the idea of eliminating the standard entirely.

A lawyer at the Natural Resources Defense Council, Avinash Kar, said his group was pleased that the agency had dropped the effort to abandon the standard. But he said the higher end of the proposed range, 0.3 micrograms, was above the level unanimously recommended by the agency¹s panel of outside scientific advisers.

"It's generally a step in the right direction, but still flawed," Mr. Kar said.

Senator Barbara Boxer, the California Democrat who is chairwoman of the Committee on Environment and Public Works, said the proposed standard was not strict enough to protect children. "Once again, the Bush administration has failed to heed its scientists," Mrs. Boxer said.

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