The Environmental Protection Agency has toughened its regulation governing maximum airborne lead levels, the first revision of the federal lead standard in 30 years. EPA's new final rule, signed Oct. 15, comes in response to a federal court ruling and mandates primary (public health) and secondary (public welfare) standards of 0.15 micrograms per cubic meter--a much more rigorous requirement than the 1978 standard of 1.5 micrograms/cu.meter.

EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson said in an Oct. 16 telephone press conference that the stricter rule will "offer a shield to protect the health of our nation's children," who are viewed as most vulnerable to harmful effects of lead exposure.

The agency also is changing the time period to be used for measuring average emissions levels, to a "rolling" three-month period, from the current system of calendar quarters.

In addition, EPA is changing the network for monitoring lead emissions to determine compliance. It will require state and local agencies to set up monitors in places where lead emissions are at least one ton per year.

Gina Solomon, senior scientist with the Natural Resources Defense Council's health program, said that EPA officials are "taking a giant step in the right direction, but they need to greatly expand the lead monitoring network if they hope to enforce this new standard."

EPA says that some 236 new or relocated monitoring locations will be needed, about half of which are to begin operating by Jan. 1, 2010, and the rest, a year later. But NRDC's Solomon contends that the Bush administration "has dismantled half of the air monitoring stations nationwide," and says that the 236 new or relocated monitors are "not adequate to detect problems, since there are thousands of serious lead polluters nationwide."

By October 2011, EPA is to designate areas that do not comply with the new lead standard. Those "non-attainment" areas then would have five years to meet the benchmark. Cathy Milbourn, an EPA spokesperson, says that it will be up to the states to determine what steps would be taken for their regions to meet the new standard.

The agency notes that lead emissions have fallen almost 97% since 1980, thanks mostly to its phasing-out of lead in gasoline. Nevertheless, Johnson says that more than 16,000 sources, including smelters and iron and steel foundries, still emit an estimated 1,300 tons of lead annually.

EPA says the rule will provide an estimated $3.7 billion to $6.9 billion in health benefits. It pegs the cost of carrying out the standards at $150 million to $2.8 billion.

The agency's action comes in response to a lawsuit filed by the Missouri Coalition for the Environment in federal district court in that state. The court in 2005 the court ordered EPA to finish the review of the lead rule by Sept. 1, 2008, but extended that deadline to Oct. 15.