The 1970’s saw significant and impactful legislation designed to clean up our environment. Air quality was bad in many cities, and people were ill or dying due to lead exposure in buildings and homes.
The Clean Air Act of 1970 established air pollution standards and laid the groundwork for the ban of leaded gasoline by the mid-1990’s. The Lead-Based Paint Poisoning Prevention Act of 1971 restricted the lead content in paint used in housing built with federal funds.
Then the Clean Water Act of 1972 regulated pollution discharges into our waters. Finally, in 1977 lead-based paint was banned as part of the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA).
In a short period, Congress acted quickly. Now, over 40 years later, our air is significantly cleaner as lead has dropped 99% from 1980 to 2016.
As conditions have improved, what can be done next? Incremental improvements continue but making major leaps again in the reduction of toxins in the air comes at a significant cost.
It is hard to predict environmental legislation, but what could drive legislation for the next few years is “squeaky wheel” policies. These will be regulations based on high-profile news stories being emphasized in the media for a time, prompting legislative bodies to take action.
Take the Flint Michigan Water Crisis as an example. In 2014, Flint changed the source of their water supply. After doing so, they did not execute the proper water treatments, which created a chemical reaction in old lead pipes. This reaction released lead into the water supply and raised the lead levels Flint’s water supply, exposing the residents to dangerous levels.
Now that the damage is done, replacement of the lead pipes in Flint is going to cost hundreds of millions of dollars. The Flint crisis has put aging city water systems in the spotlight. As other municipalities see the costs to repair Flint’s pipes, state and local authorities may enact legislation to fund pipe replacement or at least require water testing for public facilities such as schools.
Look for Congress and some states to debate lead service line replacement. Millions of lead pipes exist in the United States, but the cost to replace them is estimated to be in the billions of dollars.
Keeping the Children Safe
Lead exposure over time slowly poisons, even at low levels. Unfortunately, children are much more susceptible to lead poisoning than adults and exposure can cause development problems. A blood test is the only way to tell if someone has lead poisoning. In adults, a blood lead level (BLL) over ten micrograms per deciliter is considered cause for concern.
In 2012, the Center for Disease Control (CDC) recommended a BLL reference level of 5 micrograms per deciliter to identify children with elevated blood levels. Look for increases in the number of children reported to have high BLL. Higher numbers of exposed children may result in even stricter regulations around schools and housing, mainly pre-1978 buildings.
More diagnoses of children may have an impact on other regulations. States may enact rules for additional lead testing of public housing or schools. Since building owners have a legal obligation under the law to provide lead abatement when children are diagnosed with high BLL, look for developments in this area. Insurance companies may lobby for changes, too, as their liabilities might increase.
The White House
Citing a pro-automobile industry stance, the current Republican administration has proposed reversing some Obama-era fuel efficiency standards. They may look to tweak others. These changes may prompt California to wage a legal battle with the EPA over the rollbacks.
The current administration has also cut the EPA’s budget and staffing. These cuts may be a further indication of possible new regulations or lack thereof from the federal government.