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Exide Technologies' decision last month not to seek state permission to expand production at its Frisco lead smelter doesn't mean public health concerns are over.
Even with no expansion, airborne lead levels around the 45-year-old vehicle battery recycler are among the highest measured anywhere in the country. As recently as last year, they came close to the Environmental Protection Agency's legal limit for lead in the air.
That limit is being replaced by a tighter, more scientifically robust federal standard that is needed, a huge body of research shows, to protect children and others from a substance known to be toxic in almost unimaginably tiny doses. Lead levels around the Exide plant are routinely five to eight times higher than the new limit.
Hard evidence of how lead might be affecting people who live near the Frisco smelter, however, is just about nonexistent. Public health officials have never tested local children for IQ loss or other subtle but critical effects of lead.
It's been 15 years since they checked some children's blood for evidence of exposure – so far back that experts say any results from then are meaningless now.
Lack of local information makes it difficult for Frisco to judge the potential risks of living near the city's heaviest industry, which melts lead from old vehicle batteries for reuse in new ones. Exide's expansion plans stirred a brief but effective protest, but now the city must decide how to reconcile nearly a half-century of quiet local relations with an avalanche of new knowledge about lead's toxic impacts.
City officials want a state study. "We want to make sure that public health is protected," Mayor Maher Maso said.
Atlanta-based Exide, with operations in 80 countries and annual sales of $3.3 billion, said it is assessing the new lead standard's impact on its Frisco plant. Exide "fully intends to implement measures to attain" the tighter limit, spokeswoman Kristin Wohlleben said.
A local study might be valuable, nationally known experts on lead told The Dallas Morning News. They stressed, however, that enough is already known about the soft, gray metal's effects on intelligence, attention span and even blood pressure to justify a dramatic reduction in Frisco's lead levels.
Frisco residents can rely on an "alarming accumulation of data in other studies," said Dr. Deborah Cory-Slechta of the University of Rochester.
"We certainly know what the blood levels around smelters have been with these kinds of exposures," said Cory-Slechta, a neuroscience and member of an expert panel that pressed the EPA to cut the federal lead limit more than 90 percent. "So we can probably predict that we're going to have them above levels of concern."
Many experts argue that the new federal limit is still too high, so lead readings nearly 10 times the new limit are "clearly a concern," she said. "It should suggest to parents – especially to those who reside in some proximity to the smelter – that they would want to have blood-lead testing done on their kids."
Close to the limit
From 1988, when public disclosure of companies' toxic releases began, through 2008, the latest report year, Exide or predecessor GNB released 76,513 pounds of lead into Frisco's air. That doesn't count releases during the 24 years Exide operated before emissions reporting started.
What is known is that the lead, which enters the air from three smokestacks and 27 other points around the plant, and from dust kicked up by trucks and other sources, has sometimes violated the EPA's limit or come close.
After excessive lead readings starting in the mid-1980s, in 1991 the EPA designated the property around the smelter a nonattainment area – federal jargon meaning an area has not attained the national standard for clean air.
By 1999, lead levels had stayed below the limit – at the time, 1.5 micrograms suspended in each cubic meter of air – long enough for the EPA to lift the designation. A decade later, however, the part of Frisco nearest the smelter is about to become a nonattainment area once more.
Under federal orders, states have listed areas that will have lead levels higher than the new limit. Collin County is Texas' only proposed area; Exide is the county's only big lead source.
Being a lead nonattainment area means little to the general public; there are no restrictions on people's activities or property. The label forces regulators to reduce emissions from major sources and alerts the public to the problem.
Figures show the problem around Exide. From 2005 to 2007, the highest average reading was 0.77 micrograms per cubic meter – more than five times the new federal limit.
From May through August last year, average readings ranged from 0.97 to 1.26 micrograms. That highest reading, in July 2008, was more than eight times the new limit and just below the old one. Those readings came although Exide was emitting only slightly more than half as much lead as its state permit allows.
This summer, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality did a computer study that intentionally overestimated Exide's possible emissions to see how high the lead levels could go in theory. The forecast reached 1.42 micrograms – almost hitting the old, discarded federal limit of 1.5.
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