house with "lead keep out" sign
Photo by Steven Depolo.

This post last week on The New York Times‘ Motherlode blog should have gotten more attention. In the federal fiscal 2013 budget, lead poisoning and prevention programs are taking a huge cut — for all intents and purposes, they’re destroyed. This is the kind of discretionary spending cut that the Obama administration had to offer up to D.C.’s austerity caucus to get a budget at all. To understand how dumb it is, you have to know something about the history of lead.

The elimination of lead from gasoline is a paradigmatic triumph of American environmentalism. A danger to health was discovered by scientists. Public-health advocates and greens pushed and pushed for decades, often futilely, to get the government to take action. When EPA finally cranked up efforts to do something about it, the agency was viciously attacked. Industry shills said it was an agenda to control Americans’ lives, driven by scientists who wanted research money and a cabal of extreme environmentalists. They said there were no viable alternatives to lead and the regulations would raise gas prices and destroy the economy. They paid their own scientists to produce counter-evidence. They flooded politicians with money. Over time, EPA weathered the assault and put standards into place — a “phasedown” program in 1973, followed by stronger standards in 1982, 1985, and 1995.