For Immediate Release: Jun 14, 2018
Contact: Kirsten Stade (202) 265-7337
EPA Promises Steps to Prevent Child-Lead Dust Exposure
Whistleblower Disclosure Forces Grudging Progress in Housing Renovation Program
Washington, DC — The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has issued new national enforcement guidance designed to help prevent exposure of children and pregnant women to lead dust during repairs or renovations in older housing, a primary cause of childhood lead poisoning. The actions came in response to a whistleblower disclosure from a now-retired EPA employee represented by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER).
While serving as a Lead Advisor at EPA’s Southeastern Regional Office in Atlanta, Elizabeth Wilde reported inadequate and improper agency inspections of older homes, day-care centers, and other child-occupied buildings. The agency often failed to identify which inspected units were child-occupied, allowed un-credentialed, poorly trained staff to conduct inspections, entered false inspection reports, and compromised enforcement by not collecting evidence or keeping files intact, among other problems.
PEER filed her disclosure with the Office of Special Counsel (OSC) on April 27, 2016. Nearly a year later, on April 5, 2017, the Special Counsel directed EPA to answer her charges within 60 days. After receiving extensions, EPA ultimately responded this past December. Under the federal whistleblower law, OSC invites Ms. Wilde to comment on the agency response. Her comments triggered an additional EPA response in February. These first two responses primarily dealt with EPA promising improvements in keeping inspector credentialing and training current and maintaining enforcement files.
Ms. Wilde and PEER kept pressing EPA to accept an affirmative responsibility for ascertaining the presence of pregnant women and children. In a final response on March 19, 2018, EPA –
- Promised to “issue a national policy statement to all ten EPA regions” stressing the need to identify “occupants who are pregnant women or children under the age of 18” in older building undergoing repairs or renovations;
- Adopted a “documentation checklist for inspectors to assure proper documentation of attempts to check for evidence of the presence of pregnant women and children”; and
- Posted online guidance for inspectors on the topic.
“While I am pleased with these improvements, I am struck at EPA’s failure to hold anyone to account for the past deficiencies which put the very people we are trying to help at risk,” said Wilde, pointing out that no one was punished after she had reported to agency management that EPA staff had been throwing away enforcement files. “Without accountability what prevents these new protocols from also being ignored?”
In 2008, PEER successfully sued EPA to force the agency to adopt regulations for lead-safe repair and renovations in older buildings. The program aims at closing a major lead exposure pathway for an estimated 1.4 million U.S. children every year. Absent lead-safe techniques, lead particles fly into the air, permeating carpets, drapes, and other surfaces, and become an inhalation danger.
“EPA has still not fully embraced its duty to protect pregnant women and children from exposure to lead dust,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, noting that the latest EPA reforms say only that official attempts to “confirm occupancy is a helpful practice.” “EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt says he has ‘declared war’ on lead exposure but his agency is issuing voluntary guidance and checklists, suggesting he is on war footing for a pillow fight.”