The Bush administration is considering doing away with health standards that cut lead from gasoline, widely regarded as one of the nation's biggest clean-air accomplishments.
Battery makers, lead smelters, refiners all have lobbied the administration to do away with the Clean Air Act limits.
A preliminary staff review released by the Environmental Protection Agency this week acknowledged the possibility of dropping the health standards for lead air pollution. The agency says revoking those standards might be justified "given the significantly changed circumstances since lead was listed in 1976" as an air pollutant.
The EPA says concentrations of lead in the air have dropped more than 90 percent in the past 2 1/2 decades.
But Rep. Henry Waxman (news, bio, voting record), D-Calif., the incoming chairman of the House Committee on Government Reform, called on the agency to "renounce this dangerous proposal immediately," because lead, a highly toxic element, can cause severe nerve damage, especially in children.
"This deregulatory effort cannot be defended," Waxman wrote EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson.
Soon after lead was listed as an air pollutant 30 years ago, the Carter administration began removing lead from gasoline. Other big sources of lead in the atmosphere are from solid waste, coal, oil, iron and steel production, lead smelters and tobacco smoke.
Exposure to lead can also come from food and soil. Lead is one of six air pollutants the EPA is required to review every five years to make sure the health limits are protective enough. The others are ozone, soot, sulfur dioxide, carbon monoxide and nitrous oxides.
The EPA has repeatedly missed the deadlines set under the Clean Air Act, incurring the legal wrath of environmental groups.
However, on Wednesday night, Marcus Peacock, the Environmental Protection Agency's No. 2 official, approved new guidance to help the agency follow the law in a timelier fashion.
"Starting with lead, we're going to try to dovetail this in," Peacock said of the new guidance, which he said also would help the agency use the most up-to-date science and keep separate its scientific and policy considerations.
The health standards for air pollutants are intended to protect children, elderly and other "sensitive" populations, keep up visibility and limit damage to animals, crops, vegetation and buildings.
Bill Wehrum, who heads the EPA's Office of Air and Radiation, said the agency is "committed to continuing to significantly reduce lead emissions in this country. That's what we're trying to figure out."
John Walke, a former EPA lawyer who is now the clean air director for the Natural Resources Defense Council, disagrees.
"The Democrats just took over the Congress, and they're talking about something as dangerous and idiotic as eliminating the national health standard for air pollution?" he said. "It just doesn't add up."
In July, a Washington-based trade group for all U.S. lead battery makers wrote a top EPA air quality official to urge that the agency remove lead from its list of air pollutants.
"That is not to say that air emissions of lead should be uncontrolled, or that no steps should be taken to address public health concerns arising from lead use," the Battery Council International said. "But many other regulatory vehicles exist for meeting these concerns."
Copyright © 2006 The Associated Press