Hearing on the Science on Lead's Impacts on Children's Development and Public Health
July 12, 2012
(Remarks as prepared for delivery)
Today's hearing on the threat posed by lead provides a clear example of just how important the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is to protecting public health and keeping our children and families safe from dangerous pollutants. The hearing will show why those who question the need for EPA are ignoring the facts.
EPA's mission is to reduce pollution in the air we breathe and the water we drink, and one of the dangerous pollutants that EPA works to protect us from is lead. Lead is a toxic heavy metal that threatens people's health and affects almost every organ in the human body. Children are particularly vulnerable to lead exposure, because they are still growing and developing.
The purpose of this hearing is to review the latest scientific understanding about the threat posed by lead in the environment, especially to children. Although great progress has been made in addressing lead in the environment and the serious threat that it poses, guidelines released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) this year have cut in half the level of lead in children's blood that triggers action. That means that the number of children requiring attention in accordance with these guidelines is substantially greater.
The science also makes clear that no level of lead in children's blood is safe, and even the smallest amount of lead exposure can be harmful to kids. Lead can damage the nervous system, including the brain, which can lower IQ scores and impede development of reading, writing, language, and social interaction skills. It can also harm the cardiovascular system, including the heart, and organs that produce blood.
As we have learned more over time about the damage that this toxic contaminant can cause, the threshold of lead in children's blood that requires preventative measures, known as an "action level," has gradually been lowered. In the 1960s, the best available science indicated that elevated lead levels in children's blood occurred at 60 micrograms per deciliter. The level was lowered to 40 in 1971, to 30 in 1978, to 25 in 1985, and to 10 in 1991.
Over the decades we have made progress in reducing levels of lead in children's blood. From 1976 to 1994, there was a steep decline in lead levels 10 or higher in children's blood - from 77.8 percent to 4.4 percent.
The CDC is responsible for setting the blood lead level that triggers action to prevent further lead exposure in children. Earlier this year, CDC cut in half the action level -- from 10 micrograms of lead per deciliter of blood to just 5. The CDC estimates that today more than 500,000 children ages 1-5 have blood lead levels higher than 5.
Unfortunately, just as the federal government is acknowledging that more children are at risk, the FY 2013 budget proposal effectively cuts funding for CDC programs that address indoor lead hazards.
Despite what is known about the health risks and efforts to reduce lead exposure, industries are still releasing millions of pounds of this dangerous metal each year. According to EPA, industry released 17.5 million pounds of lead into the environment in 2010, and these ongoing releases continue to cause pollution.
Our knowledge about the dangers of lead exposure and other contaminants increases every day, and I ask unanimous consent to submit for the record studies that show an array of damaging health effects related to very low levels of lead exposure.
While we cannot eliminate every risk, when science tells us that a substance -- even at very low levels -- can damage children's intellectual development and physical health, we have a responsibility to protect them.
Today, the best available science tells us that by limiting the use of lead, we can reduce levels of toxic pollution that harm public health and hurt our children. The serious threat posed by lead, even at low levels, makes it clear how essential it for the health and safety of the American people that EPA takes every opportunity to decrease the exposure to this dangerous pollutant.