WASHINGTON — The Environmental Protection Agency has quietly delayed work on completing required rules to protect children and construction workers from exposure to lead-based paint, exploring instead the possibility of using voluntary standards to govern building renovations and remodeling.
The EPA move, first disclosed in documents provided by an agency whistle-blower, has prompted angry questions from Democrats in Congress, the attorneys general of New York and Illinois, and public health advocates around the country.
One organization is threatening a lawsuit against the agency for failing to issue the rules, as required by law.
On Monday, five members of Congress wrote to EPA Administrator Stephen L. Johnson, demanding an explanation for the EPA's "apparent abandonment of regulations required by law to protect children from exposure to lead."
The lawmakers -- led by two California Democrats, Rep. Henry A. Waxman of Los Angeles and Sen. Barbara Boxer -- complained that the EPA's action, which was never announced publicly, breached federal toxic-substance laws.
The regulations were to require that only certified contractors, using workers trained in lead-safety practices, be used for remodeling work in buildings constructed before 1978, when the use of lead-based paint for housing was banned.
EPA spokeswoman Eryn Witcher said the agency had not abandoned the possibility of issuing mandatory regulations, and that it was simply exploring alternatives that might be more effective, as well as less costly to industry and the public.
Lead-paint exposure threatens about 1.4 million children a year, according to the EPA. In 2000, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated that about 434,000 children had dangerous levels of lead in their blood, and said that minority children had been disproportionately affected.
Lead poisoning is linked primarily to exposure to lead paint and lead-contaminated dust, often created during home remodeling. Lead exposure is especially dangerous to infants and toddlers, and has been linked to developmental disabilities and behavioral problems.
EPA officials emphasize that they are concerned about lead exposure and its effect on children. They also point to an internal study showing that the cost of the regulations -- $1.7 billion to $3.1 billion annually -- could be an overwhelming burden for the mostly small businesses that renovate buildings.
However, an agency estimate showed that such rules would provide health benefits of greater value, from $2.7 billion to $4.2 billion annually.
"It is another sign that [this administration] will not take action that will raise cost to industry even when it deals with one of the nation's top public health concerns," said Jeff Ruch, executive director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, which received documents about the EPA's voluntary approach from an agency whistle-blower this spring.
Ruch said his organization was recruiting plaintiffs to sue the agency on allegations of violating federal laws requiring issuance of rules. "In terms of public health threats, this is on the very top shelf," he said.
An expert on household threats to children urged the EPA to move ahead swiftly with rules.
"It is not uncommon for us to see children several times a week with lead levels" in excess of federal standards, said Dr. Megan Sandel, a pediatrician affiliated with two Boston-area medical centers. These children often appear for assessment "because of renovations going on at their homes," she said.
Frequently, she said, parents and contractors begin construction without taking steps to reduce exposure, such as using special fans and plastic sheathing to isolate the dust.
The EPA's Witcher said getting such information to the public was what the agency intended to do in an educational campaign.
Under a 1992 amendment to the Toxic Substances Control Act, regulations governing building renovations and lead safety were to be in place by 1996, but the EPA fell behind schedule. In 2003, the agency issued a report saying it expected to finish the rules by 2005.
However, agency documents show that in mid-2004, Johnson was presented with a choice: to complete the mandatory rules or to pursue an approach that would encourage lead-safe remodeling and renovation through public education and collaborative programs with industry.
In recent written responses to Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), Johnson said that the agency was "developing an education and outreach campaign that will convey the benefits of the use of lead-safe work practices.... EPA is also targeting outreach efforts to expand consumer awareness."
He said the EPA planned to launch its education campaign by the fall and that officials would evaluate what "additional steps may be necessary, including regulation."
Obama was disturbed by the response, according to his spokesman, Robert Gibbs, who said Illinois had more cases of lead poisoning than any other state.
"This issue hits home for him," Gibbs said. "Every day of delay means more children get sick."
Witcher, the EPA spokeswoman, said she shared Obama's concern. "The EPA believes that one lead-contaminated child is too many," she said. "We are looking to identify an approach that meets the requirements of the law and at the same time is not unnecessarily burdensome on the industry."