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The Poison Lobby Strikes Back

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You might have thought that we'd already won the battle over whether it's OK for a business to poison its customers -- perhaps in November 2008, with the stunning national rejection of the Bush administration's wholesale efforts to take the public-health cop off the beat. But sadly, that's not the case. A new, commonsense proposal by the Environmental Protection Agency that would require all housing contractors to be properly trained and certified for working with lead paint before they renovate properties that are likely to contain lead paint has now been challenged in court by the National Association of Home Builders.

The Home Builders Association argues that since the current rule already requires such certification for homes in which a child under under six or a pregnant woman resides, the new rule isn't necessary.  "Even under the original rule, the opt-out provision was not available in homes where small children or pregnant women live," NAHB Chairman Bob Jones said in a statement. "That shows that this change provides no additional protection to the people who are most vulnerable to lead-based paint hazards."

Of course, during the early weeks of a pregnancy (when they are most vulnerable), women often don't know they are pregnant. Or, they become pregnant after the work has been done on their house. And children over six can get lead poisoning. In fact, I know a number of adults who have suffered serious lead poisoning from renovations of homes with high levels of lead-based paint. So while the NAHB statement is a "weasel truth" (technically true, if you read it carefully), the reality is that we should protect everyone who is vulnerable, not just those who are "most" vulnerable. And what's wrong with requiring that contractors know what they are doing? What about their employees, who might be exposed to very high levels of dust in multiple workplaces, and who might include pregnant women?

It's interesting to note that one of the most prominent global-warming deniers, Oklahoma Senator James Inhofe, is also doing the heavy lifting to help the builders escape any requirement that they be properly trained to work with deadly lead paint dust before they renovate buildings that contain it. Inhofe successfully delayed the EPA's implementation of its new rule by arguing that there was not enough time to comply. (One might reasonably wonder why contractors don't routinely get themselves trained and certified without the EPA requiring it. The answer is that, when it comes to protecting the health of their workers and customers, too many contractors do only the bare, legally required minimum.)

The building industry, sadly, represents one of the most stubborn parts of the poison lobby. "Home, sweet home" was never meant to become "home, toxic home," but the Homebuilders Association and others push hard to sing that second refrain. Fortunately the government is now moving on a number of fronts to make our families safer. In addition to a number of EPA initiatives, Congress has passed, and the president has signed,  new legislation establishing limits on the amount of formaldehyde that can be emitted into homes by particle board and other composite wood products. The formaldehyde legislation had its origin in a Sierra Club investigation that revealed that the trailers provided by FEMA to Hurricane Katrina victims were releasing toxic, and in some cases potentially fatal, levels of formaldehyde. The purpose of the new law is to make sure that never happens again.

"Without the action of Congress, better regulation of formaldehyde could have taken many years longer," said Becky Gillette, formaldehyde campaign director for the Sierra Club. "This doesn't make up for the illnesses of tens of thousands of families housed in Katrina trailers with high formaldehyde levels. But it is encouraging to see that sometimes our government works for the people instead of for the profits of big corporations. Congress has taken a major step to protect people from unsafe levels of formaldehyde."

But recently it was revealed that some of the old, toxic Katrina trailers are back on the Gulf Coast -- this time as housing for workers who are trying to clean up the toxic mess created by BP's death gusher in the Gulf. A disaster contracting firm called Alpha 1 freely admitted that it had sold the trailers as housing, even though they are supposed to be clearly labeled that such use is prohibited. Ron Mason, the owner of Alpha I, dismissed the concerns:

"These are perfectly good trailers," Mr. Mason said, adding that he has leased land in and around Venice for 40 more trailers that are being delivered from Texas in the coming weeks. "Look, you know that new car smell? Well, that's formaldehyde, too. The stuff is in everything. It's not a big deal."

This is precisely the outcome the Club warned against when FEMA sold -- instead of destroyed -- the formaldehyde trailers. And this happened on President Obama's watch. So the influence of the poison lobby is -- well -- everywhere. You don't have to have bad intentions. You just have to be willing to take risks with other people's health.

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