Congress Investigated Lead Exposure

This transcription of a 1990 congressional hearing discussed the health effects of lead exposure. The main players are listed as various health departments, the CDC, and various lead industry parties. This was done due to rising movement discussing toxicity of lead and its household impacts.   “We have an abatement demonstration now getting under way in public housing in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Albany, and Omaha.  Initial testing has begun on this. We are addressing the same issues in multi-family housing with FHA as we are in single family housing with the FHA demonstration,” (10). This is crucial as the subcommittee is working on finding the most efficient ways to abate elevated lead levels in soil and paint in some of the most lead polluted  cities.   The hearing discusses that movement is beginning to happen in these areas that experience high levels of lead pollution and elevated blood lead levels in children. These areas were characteristic of the problems with lead poisoning and high blood lead levels which is why they were chosen for abatement demonstrations It is also addressed that they are testing on both single and multiple family housing in order to determine the needs of abatement in these areas given the circumstances that affect different areas and housing styles within public housing. 

ASARCO sent a letter to the subcommittee to answer questions about their role in the pollution of Omaha and how their waste from the lead smelting process was handled.  “These materials are not handled in a manner that would classify them as waste, and certainly retain significant value to be reprocessed within Asarco's plant system,” (283). ASARCO defends their processes as not wasting any materials that include lead as a byproduct or are polluted by lead back into the environment. ASARCO was focused on defending the soil and water levels of lead as they established that they were not contributing through the waste process while mostly ignoring the air lead issue that was occurring as lead particles were expelled from the smeltery and settled into the soil.

The discussion also includes that levels of air pollution are within standard permissible levels (282). This is incredibly important as testing of soil around Omaha that is discussed in other documents in this exhibit find that the area has been heavily polluted. The site is heavily weighed down with lead within the soil. This was not simply focused on Omaha as other lead smelteries experienced similar problems and were also dealing with lead in their soil.  This focus was based on smelteries but also the lead paint issue was discussed which is what sparked the focus on abatement of both soil and homes as lead paint chips were being eaten by children leading to high blood lead levels.

The hearing also discusses that ASARCO is within compliance for testing of employee blood lead level, which requires all employees working in high lead areas to be tested every six months further testing as needed for higher lead levels. 

The ongoing work at this point is also evident as ASARCO says in their letter to the subcommittee, “I would like to underscore Asarco's interest in working with your Subcommittee in drafting effective and responsible legislation,”(284) as ASARCO was looking to prevent costly measures that would require ASARCO to find new ways to manage and contain their emissions.   The discussion is incredibly important as the largest lead smeltery was ASARCO at Omaha and with ASARCO stating that they were willing to work with the subcommittee on legislation that would directly impact the work of the company and its continued existence. 

Due to the length of the document it is difficult to determine which legislation was most prevalent as the hearing was focused on the different interests and effects.  This was presented by various health organizations including the CDC as lead industry advocates countered and discussed the importance of their industry and the safety measures in place. With this interest greater scrutiny was being applied to Omaha and industries that used lead in processing or in smelters.

United States. Congress. Senate. Committee on Environment and Public Works. Subcommittee on Toxic Substances, Environmental Oversight, Research and Development, author. (1990). Health effects of lead exposure : hearing before the Subcommittee on Toxic Substances, Environmental Oversight, Research and Development of the Committee on Environment and Public Works, United States Senate, One Hundred First Congress, second session, March 8, 1990. Washington : U.S. Government Printing Office.