Thanks to regulations limiting the use of lead in gasoline, paint, and plumbing supplies, the median blood lead concentration for US children age five and younger has dropped from 15 µg/dL in 1976-1980 to 1.4 µg/dL in 2007-2008. This is important because lead is a neurotoxicant that can lead to developmental delays and behavioral problems, among other health concerns.

But this public health victory is far from complete. Lead poisoning still occurs among children who live in housing with lead paint or areas where lead contaminates the soil. A new series from USA Today, Ghost Factories: Smelting and Lead Contamination, focuses on communities where long-shuttered factories caused lead contamination that hasn’t been cleaned up.

The series explores the question of why EPA hasn’t done more to warn residents and clean up contaminated sites. News organizations perform a public service when they draw attention to issues like this and force an examinations of whether agencies are handling them appropriately. I expect the general reaction to the series will be anger that EPA hadn’t protected families who had no way of knowing that a lead smelter once operated down the street from their house, and whose children have been playing in dirt with lead levels 10 times the legal limit.

People expect EPA to address this kind of problem because few of us individually have the resources to do in-depth research the industrial past of any place we’re thinking of moving to, or test the soil of sites that might be contaminated, or conduct remediation of contaminated areas. We certainly don’t have the legal authority to force the companies that contaminated land in our neighborhoods to pay for the cleanup.

Four decades ago, the US decided we need an agency to do these kinds of things. As the Ghost Factories series illustrates, it’s not doing all we might hope. The appropriate response to that is to figure out how to improve and strengthen EPA — not to hobble or eliminate it as so many politicians are eager to suggest. A series of articles on lead contamination is a good reminder that if we’re all left to our own devices to protect ourselves and our families from environmental health problems like lead poisoning, we won’t get very far.

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