WASHINGTON -- Although voicing sympathy for children poisoned by lead paint, oppose an abatement measure proposed by Maryland Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin because it would be too costly for the lead industry.
Mr. Cardin's bill would set up a $1 billion annual grant program for state and local governments to remove lead paint from low-income housing units and day-care centers. The Lead Abatement Trust Fund would be funded by an excise tax of between 125 percent and 250 percent of lead's market value.
"We do not know of any sector of the nation's industrial base which could long endure such high levels of taxation," T S Ary, director of the Bureau of Mines, said yesterday at a House Ways and Means subcommittee hearing. "The administration strongly opposes enactment" of the bill.
A recent study by the Bureau of Mines found that a 250 percent tax on lead, which costs 30 cents a pound, would "virtually eliminate" the lead industry in the United States, Mr. Ary said.
A reduction in lead mining would also inhibit the mining of other important minerals that are found in small amounts in lead veins, resulting in a combined loss of some 10,000 U.S. jobs, he said.
Mr. Cardin, D-3rd, countered that similar excise taxes are imposed on some chemical pollutants, with no apparent harm to their producers. Also, most of the lead consumed in the U.S. is used to make products that cannot be made with any other substance so the market for lead would remain fairly stable, he said.
R. Glenn Hubbard, a deputy assistant secretary of the treasury, said that under the bill, current lead producers would be paying for the sins of former paint and lead manufacturers.
Lead has not been used in paint for decades, he said.
But Mr. Cardin laid the blame for lead poisoning squarely at the industry's feet.
"For years, the lead industry funded [spurious] research that purported to prove the safety of lead products," he said. "The lead industry has spearheaded attacks on reputable scientists who attempted to publicize the dangers of lead" as well as conspiring for decades to block legislation that could have prevented current problems, Mr. Cardin said.
Mr. Hubbard recommended that general tax revenues be used for the trust fund so that the lead industry would not solely bear the cost. But Mr. Cardin said that would violate the 1990 budget agreement, which requires new programs to have revenue-raising mechanisms.
Public health advocates at the hearing applauded Mr. Cardin's bill and censured the administration for its "inadequate" actions in combatting what Health and Human Services Secretary Louis Sullivan has called "the number one environmental threat to the health of children in the United States."
"The administration, to put it lightly, is foot-dragging on this most important public health issue," said Dr. John F. Rosen, a professor of pediatrics at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in the Bronx, N.Y. The $24 million the administration has proposed for lead paint abatement in 1993 is "a pittance," he said.
Harold Schultz of New York City's department of housing said New York alone spends $24 million annually on one of several lead abatement programs.
Politicians concerned about the price tag of lead abatement would do well to look at the costs of health care and special education for chronically poisoned children -- about $45,000 per person, said Karen Florini of the Environmental Defense Fund. The total costs "run into the hundreds of billions," she said.
Ellen K. Silbergeld, a professor of toxicology at the University of Maryland, added that the cost of IQ deterioration associated with lead poisoning is incalculable.
"Taking away a few IQ points from one child may or may not cause concern [but] losing a large number of our truly gifted children, and doubling or quadrupling the number of learning-disabled children, is a recipe for national disaster in the next generation," she said.
At least one in six American children is estimated to suffer from lead poisoning, and 55 percent of Baltimore's children have excessively high levels of lead in their blood, Mr. Cardin said.
Lead-poisoned children are seven times more likely to drop out of high school and six times more likely to suffer from a reading disability than other children, he said.