For the first time in 30 years, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has tightened limits on lead emissions, a move that will require states to crack down on polluters that spew more than 1,300 tons of the metal annually.

The new standards, announced by the agency yesterday, limit emissions to 0.15 micrograms of lead per cubic meter of air (ug/m3). The previous standard, set in 1978, was 1.5 ug/m3.

"America's air is cleaner than a generation ago," EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson said in a statement. "With these stronger standards, a new generation of Americans are being protected from harmful lead emissions."

Ingestion of lead can cause brain damage, especially in young children. While the 1980 phase-out of lead in gasoline has curbed lead emissions by nearly 97 percent, according to the EPA, there are still as many as 16,000 industrial facilities, including iron and steel foundries and smelters that melt used batteries, which continue to expel the metal, the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) says. Lead is also in airplane fuel.

The new standard is "a giant step in the right direction," NRDC scientist Gina Solomon said in a statement. But she added that the agency's planned redesign of its lead-monitoring network, which would include 236 new or relocated monitors, "is not adequate to detect problems, since there are thousands of serious lead polluters nationwide."

The lead cleanup won't begin for up to eight years. By October 2011, EPA will identify areas that need to reduce their lead emissions, and then states have five years to meet the new standard.

The agency set the new limits following advice from its Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee.

(Image of iron foundry by iStockphoto/Doug Cannell)