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Watchdog Gives EPA Failing Grade on Lead-Paint Rules

For over a decade, the Environmental Protection Agency has mostly failed to enforce a series of health regulations meant to keep people from being exposed to lead-based paint, according to a report issued Monday by an internal watchdog. 

WASHINGTON (CN) – For over a decade, the Environmental Protection Agency has mostly failed to enforce a series of health regulations meant to keep people from being exposed to lead-based paint, according to a report issued Monday by an internal watchdog.

According to the 30-page report from the EPA’s Office of Inspector General, or OIG, the agency has for years failed to put “sufficient controls” in place when it comes to enforcing its own lead renovation, repair and painting rule.

The rule, established in 2008, is a three-prong program meant to improve lead paint regulation, compliance and education and outreach initiatives the agency uses to inform the public of the hazardous effects lead paint may have on them, and whether it is present where they live or work.

Before being banned in 1978, an estimated 38 million homes contained lead-based paint. A whopping 87% of homes built before 1940 were contaminated and 24% of homes built between 1960 and 1978 had some level of lead paint too.

By 2010, the EPA’s lead renovation and repair painting program included 320,000 renovators who performed 18 million projects to curb exposure.

But according to the OIG’s report, since then, the EPA Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance staff tasked with regulating lead paint exposure “could not identify or provide documented strategies” they  have developed for any of the top “lead hot spots” in the U.S.

The OIG found little evidence OECA reviewed strategies like work-site inspections, training class audits or records review. Where strategies were implemented, they were inconsistent, according to the report.

Some regions used geographic testing while others admitted to no formal testing at all. Other regions admitted to focusing on just one area like military housing instead of all necessary areas, like buildings that house children, the elderly or low-income or vulnerable populations.

The lack of specificity left it unclear whether EPA was following any criteria at all or if it even has a targeting strategy, the OIG said.

Last December, the EPA released its federal action plan to reduce childhood lead exposures and related health impacts. It is a blueprint based on 2016 recommendations by OECA and Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention, or OCSPP.

The recommendations specifically emphasized the need for the EPA to reduce lead poisoning in poor children and OCSPP agreed to pursue it by aggressively, devoting 90% of its toxic safety resources to lead compliance. Some 95% of that would be earmarked specifically for the renovation, repainting and repair program.

“OCSPP guidance stated that the EPA is working to reduce the number of children with blood lead levels of five micrograms per deciliter or higher, with a long-term goal of closing the gap … among low-income children versus non-low-income children from a baseline percentage difference of 28.4 percent (2007–2010) to a difference of 10 percent or less by FY 2018,” the report states.

But the 2016 guidance wasn’t mandatory and OECA did not track data. So when last year’s plan was released, the OIG found the EPA failed to address the lead exposure disparities altogether.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicates the most common form of lead poisoning in children is from “common renovation and repair and painting activities” like sanding, cutting or replacing windows. Exposure can lead to slower growth, lower IQ and other behavioral issues. Lead exposure can alter memory, pose dangers to pregnant women and can cause high blood pressure.

This year, the EPA proposed cutting its lead education programs altogether but Congress allotted $12.6 million to fund them anyway. The lack of sufficient recordkeeping, however, has made it hard to determine whether any funds invested had a meaningful impact.

The OIG notes that some OCSPP program managers conducted some small scale outreach activities. They trained 70 EPA staff and conducted in-person seminars for building permit offices in two states.

But information was largely shared informally and intermittently via conference call or in unrecorded meetings.

“Federal internal control standards require documentation of agency activities to provide reasonable assurance the program objectives and goals are achieved and organizational knowledge is retained to mitigate the risk of having knowledge limited to a few personnel,” OIG said.

The EPA contested the OIG’s recommendations in part, saying it believes they been completed and therefore no corrective action is necessary.

However, the OIG still considers its recommendations “unresolved” because the EPA has not identified certain objectives and management oversight controls.

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