Sunday, June 27, 2010

Detoxing the American Dream

English: Mike Metzer, from the Environmental P...
EPA at WTC. Image: Wikipedia
While much attention has been focused on attempts to contain the oil spill in the Gulf, government agencies have also been working to limit environmental disasters a bit closer to home - the possibility of lead contamination in your house.

This week was to be the roll-out of an expansive program from the Environmental Protection Agency aimed at protecting children from lead poisoning as a result of insufficient safety precautions of building contractors dealing with lead-based paint.

The bill effects a wide spectrum of home-building trades, including carpenters, plumbers, electricians, roofers - anyone who might come in contact with lead paint or other lead hazards in homes built before 1978, the year lead paint was prohibited from use in American homes. Real-estate professionals and landlords are also effected by the legislation, requiring them to inform a buyer or renter if lead paint is present on a property they are selling or renting.

The EPA, however, temporarily suspended the plan, after an onslaught of protests from industry groups and congressional Republicans who complained that the the industry was not ready for such changes, and that the safety measures would disrupt small business growth during fragile economic times. The delay is intended to allow contractors until September 30 to sign up for training, and be fully trained by December 31. Senator James Inhofe (R-Oklahoma), who pushed hard for the delay, said he was very pleased with the decision, stating emphatically, "we won!"

EPA lead safety guide.
Yet some builders, such as Scranton, PA remodeling contractor Adam Perez, have seen this coming for a long time. In an interview on prweb, Mr. Perez says "this law is certainly needed and long overdue. It sets new requirements for the construction industry to train their employees on the proper handling and elimination of lead-based materials," adding "the construction industry and homeowners have had two years to prepare for the mandates provided in the bill since its passage in 2008."

Likewise, EPA spokesman Dale Kemery recently said that more than a million American children a year are at risk of being poisoned by lead-based paint in their homes. "Two years was adequate time to prepare."

Although Senator Inhofe was cheered by many for stalling the mandate and taking the immediate burden off contractors, he contends that ultimately he supports the measures. His record, though, shows he is an outspoken critic of environmental safety policies, and is most noted for his bold statements claiming global warming to be "the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people." What's no hoax is that he currently chairs the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, a position due to have substantial influence on environmental policy should the balance of power change at the midterm elections - before the halted new measures are to re-commence.

The EPA's directive is no cakewalk. It calls for unprecedented strict new regulations - Pennsylvania's version would slap a $37,000 fine on anyone violating lead safety guidelines. But there's a strong case for drastic action to be taken.

The lead paint crisis of today is like that of asbestos in the 1980's. Childhood lead poisoning remains a major environmental problem in the U.S, perhaps even more prevalent than asbestos, due to its toxic contamination in so many American homes.

Lead poisoned blood cells.

The presence of lead itself is not necessarily a danger if properly contained and sealed, and the EPA has approved a list of new sealants to help in such situations. It becomes a concern when people work on lead painted surfaces, raising the possibility of loose flakes or lead dust. This situation was exacerbated dramatically with the popularity of rehabbing properties in past decades. Hence, This Old House may really have been This Old Toxic House.

Percent of youth 4-17 w/ ADHD, Nat. Survey of Children's Health, 2003.

On its website, the EPA lists chilling details about the effects of lead poisoning. According to their research, even low level exposures to lead can cause severe harm to children, including nervous system and kidney damage, learning disabilities, attention deficit disorder, decreased intelligence, speech and language problems, poor muscle coordination, decreased bone growth, and hearing damage.

Exposure to high levels of lead can have devastating effects on children, including seizures, unconsciousness, and, in some cases, death.

FEMA inspects lead paint in home after Hurricane Katrina.

Children are especially susceptible to lead because their growing bodies absorb more of it, and their brains and nervous systems are more sensitive to its damaging effects. Yet lead can be dangerous for grown-ups too. The site lists fertility problems, high blood pressure, nerve disorders, memory and concentration problems, and muscle and joint pain as top lead toxicity symptoms for adults. Pets are also vulnerable.

Oil-soaked beach.
Zooming out from this particular calamity, a panoramic scope of our nation's attitudes shows one of disparaging opinions when it comes to environmental matters and priorities of public policy. Many people see the troubled economy, deficit, and lack of jobs as top concerns over issues such as clean energy, safety, and rescuing the planet's ecology. The President's recent drilling moratorium for 33 exploratory deep-water oil rigs was met with protests by tea party supporters and industry induced lawsuits, despite that over 1600 rigs in the region are exempt from the motion and presently in full operation.

The general theme behind the resistance is that 'this is not the time' to be halting business for safety investigations, that our economic prosperity is at stake, that there are more sensible and convenient solutions to our current ecologic and economic troubles. Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer echoed that sentiment in an Op-ed this week titled Dreams from our president, in which he criticized the White House's clean energy effort, comparing it to the "monumental boondoggle" of the Carter administration's dashed hopes to replace fossil fuels with an assortment of synfuels. He argues the reason we should stick to oil, so to speak, is because "it is very portable, energy-dense, and easy to use." 

Perhaps he is right. But compelling arguments are being waged on both sides.

Protecting our water.
People in the green world see our nation at the apex of crisis after years of a relentless war on home and planet from the Bush administration's mad thirst for fossil fuels as part of their risky 2005 Energy Act. Specifically controversial was the policy of opening up vast areas of public lands for mining of oil, coal and natural gas. Many of these mines are near private residences and seem to have weak provisions for deterring people from stumbling upon their potentially hazardous fields.

The recent award winning HBO documentary, Gasland, underlined this notion poignantly, remarkably capturing on camera incidents of residents in Pennsylvania demonstrating that they can light their toxic drinking water on fire (see below clip), a situation claimed to be caused by under-regulated new hydraulic-fracture drilling for natural gas in a vast area called the Marcellus Shale.

The film, made by independent filmmaker and Pennsylvania native Josh Fox, contends that former Vice-President Dick Cheney helped carve a gaping loophole for energy conglomerate Halliburton Co., enabling it to slip through the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the Safe Drinking Water Act, and the Superfund Law, and thus allow volatile mining compounds such as hydrochloric acid, ammonium sulfate, dimethylforrmamide, and potassium chloride to seep into the region's groundwater... That's one playground the kids should definitely avoid!

Click upper left hand corner for full-screen You-Tube video link.

When or if the time ever becomes right to begin the Great Detoxification of America, I'm sure the issue will have gone through a rigorous, extended debate. It's unreasonable to assume that gas, coal, and oil interests will simply hand over the reins of power during this presidency, or even this generation.

The thought of this struggle brings to mind a memory from when I was a boy in Chicago. I was on a drive through the city with my friend and his staunchly conservative father. We passed by a big power plant that was billowing thick clouds of smoke into the air from its smokestacks. I uttered something typical for a child of my generation, something about it being "smelly and bad." My friend's father turned to me and said "you know, there was a time when folks looked at that smoke and saw progress. Today, all you kids see in it is pollution."

In essence, the old adage says that progress in our society is rooted in the ability to pursue and achieve the American dream...last time I checked Webster's, that dream means many different things to different people.--D.A. DeMers

Image credits:  EPA test at WTC site, FEMA Photo, public domain. Lead blood slide, by Herbert Fred and Hendrik van Dijk,"Images of Memorable Cases: Case 81," Connexions, CC license 2.0., owner does not necessarily share views expressed on this page. ADHD map, CDC, public domain. FEMA workers by Marvin Nauman, FEMA photo, public domain. Tap water by Alex Anlicker, GNU License version 1.3. Oil spill, NOAA, public domain.

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1 comment:

  1. in this post many people see the troubled economy, deficit, and lack of jobs as top concerns over issues such as clean energy, safety, and rescuing the planet's ecology.

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