DESPITE MOUNTING evidence of the nationwide threat of lead poisoning, especially to children, governments have been slow to react. Now the federal government is taking the lead with an ambitious program to reduce the threat over the next decade.
Lead poses an unseen but dangerous threat to our minds and bodies. It attacks the nervous system, causing brain damage, mental retardation and kidney disease. Young children are particularly vulnerable. A high federal official has called lead poisoning "the No. 1 environmental problem facing America's children."
A recent federal survey confirmed that lead paint in homes remains a big problem, even though retail sales of lead-based paint have been banned for more than a decade. An estimated 57 million American homes have lead paint in them. Of these, 10 million contain children under seven.
Eating chips of lead paint causes lead poisoning, but an even greater threat is believed to come from the dust that comes from lead paint and settles on everything.
The Department of Housing and Urban Development has outlined a long-term plan to eliminate lead from homes with the most serious hazards. The cost of testing and abating lead pollution in 500,000 homes a year was put at $1.9 billion to $2.4 billion.
The Environmental Protection Agency is expected to take part in the federal drive with more stringent standards of lead levels in the blood and regulations on the use of lead in plumbing.
Preliminary work to pinpoint communities and individuals that are most at risk is the important first step, and this can be done without great cost. State testing of poor children for lead poisoning is now mandated under the Medicaid law, but most states are failing to carry out the law.
Federal regulation has accomplished much in curbing lead paint and leaded gasoline, but more should be done.
Lead paint is still used commercially for outside work on roads, bridges and billboards, and this adds to the lead in the air and ground water. While no autos have been built to use leaded gasoline since 1974, a billion gallons of leaded gasoline are still sold annually. It is now time for an outright ban on these uses of lead.
The cost of eliminating lead from our society will be enormous. While some fund requests will be added to the federal budget, it is not clear where most of the money will come from. Yet the nation cannot rest while millions of its children are being slowly poisoned.