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Kids in the Midwest will get more blood screenings under EPA plan to deal with lead threat

 A worker waters a property in the Omaha Lead Superfund Site that's been remediated for high levels of lead in the soil.
Abiola Kosoko
A worker waters a property in the Omaha Lead Superfund Site that's been remediated for high levels of lead in the soil.

Midwestern states — including Kansas, Missouri, Iowa and Nebraska — exceed the national average of detectable levels of lead in the blood of children. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency released a new plan to reduce lead exposure.

A study shows about half of children in the United States have detectable levels of lead in their blood, despite federal regulations that ban or restrict its use. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency adopted a new strategy to reduce exposure, particularly in low-income and communities of color that are disproportionately affected.

On Thursday, the EPA released its “Strategy to Reduce Lead Exposures and Disparities in U.S. Communities,” a plan that the agency said is the first of its kind.

It outlines new ways the EPA plans to work with other agencies and improve government collaboration to reduce exposure to lead. It includes plans to increase blood lead level screenings in children, training people for careers in lead remediation and engaging with the public by publishing measures and milestones on the EPA website and taking public input on projects.

“This, for the first time, represents the agency looking not only to limit the amount of exposure that children and others have to lead, but, in fact, to make significant improvements or advancements with regard to environmental justice by also addressing disparities long-standing disparities, in terms of who finds themselves adversely affected by lead,” said Carlton Waterhouse, deputy assistant administrator for the EPA’s Office of Land and Emergency Management.

The plan builds upon decades of lead regulation. Housing built before 1978, when lead paint was banned for residential use, has a high chance of having lead paint. Older lead service lines for water that are in the process of being replaced but there are challenges locating where they all are. Lead in soil from smelters and leaded gasoline was phased out and banned in cars in 1996 by the Clean Air Act. Leaded fuel however is still used in smaller aircraft today.

The Midwest has some of the highest numbers of detectable levels of lead in children's blood in the country, according to a study published last year by The Journal of the American Medical Association Pediatrics. In Kansas, that number rises to 65%. In Iowa, it’s 76%, Missouri 82%, and in Nebraska 83%. Those are all higher than the study’s national average. The World Health Organization says there is no safe level of lead.

Part of the strategy will identify communities with lead exposure and focus on ways to reduce those levels and improve health outcomes.

“So we're very focused on going toward those places that have hotspots, going toward those places and determining what the dominant and primary sources of that are in those communities,” Waterhouse said.

Carlton Waterhouse, Deputy Assistant Administrator for the EPA’s Office of Land and Emergency Management.
Carlton Waterhouse, Deputy Assistant Administrator for the EPA’s Office of Land and Emergency Management.

The EPA has 15 large lead Superfund sites in Region 7 which includes Nebraska, Kansas, Iowa and Missouri. The region includes the Lead Belt largely in Southern Missouri and has a history of lead mining and smelting. The wait times for remediation have been lengthy with work still being done at sites several decades after being designated a Superfund site.

“The Office of Land and Emergency Management that oversees the Superfund program was on a very limited budget,” said Waterhouse describing the backlog of work needing to be done. Now with the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and reinstating the Superfund tax, he believes there is funding to expedite the cleanup of sites.

The plan outlines policy changes including reviewing the current guidelines to Residential Soil Lead Guidance for Contaminated Sites that could reduce the reference value for remediation of lead in soil. Currently, that level is 400 parts per million (ppm) for residential play areas and was set more than two decades ago. Since then, the Centers for Disease Control has lowered its elevated blood lead reference value twice while the EPA’s values have remained unchanged.

“The new soil lead guidance is going to update our old guidance which is decades old and reflects the latest science and is going to call for, we're expecting a new screening level to be developed in that soil lead guidance,” said Waterhouse.

The deadline to evaluate that number is June 30, 2023, which is listed in the strategic outline.

This story comes from the Midwest Newsroom, an investigative journalism collaboration including IPRKCUR 89.3Nebraska Public Media NewsSt. Louis Public Radio and NPR.

Samantha Horton is a former health reporter for the Kansas News Service. She most recently worked as a fellow with the NPR Midwest Newsroom and the Missouri Independent.