Finding a contractor for lead paint removal
Angie’s List member Steve T. of San Diego hired highly rated Paintgreen to remove lead paint from his garage. He says company owner, John Ray, “was patient and went over and beyond to make sure all work was done to the letter of the law.” (Photo courtesy of Steve T.)
They were planning a nursery in their Lincoln, Neb. home, but Khara and Emir Plicanic had some concerns. The home, built in 1900, still had three original windows and a closet in the nursery that all contained lead paint.
Lead paint, which can be present in homes built before 1978 – there are more than 24 million of those in the U.S. – is poisonous and can cause irreversible brain and nervous system damage when ingested by young children. In adults, lead poisoning can lead to a variety of problems, including reproductive and nerve disorders.
In 2010, the EPA established stricter guidelines for safe lead paint removal, part of which included requiring contractors who could disturb lead paint in older homes to take a lead safety course and become certified in lead abatement safety.
However, as Khara Plicanic discovered, finding contractors who are properly certified and take lead paint abatement seriously can be a tough chore.
“It was kind of a nightmare to figure out who was going to take it seriously and what the process would look like,” Plicanic says. “I was hearing all kinds of stories. I had some contractors who straight up told me that you would have to eat a whole wall full of (paint) chips to have anything (bad) happen, which was inaccurate and ignorant. I had other contractors tell me that their kids got lead poisoning from the dust on the contractor’s clothes that he would wear home from work. I had other contractors tell me that they basically slept through the certification class and don’t care. It was awful to try to navigate through all of that.”
Contractors who fail to meet the new guidelines can face stiff fines from the EPA – up to $37,500 per violation – but reliable enforcement of the laws has been a challenge. Though the EPA has made more of an effort to find and fine violators, owners of older homes who begin a remodeling project should not assume that the regulation is being enforced, and that their contractor is certified and will employ the correct abatement methods.
“I knew exactly what the rules were, because I read the EPA handbook on it,” Plicanic says. “Some contractors take it very seriously because there are obviously huge fines associated with violations. Other contractors don’t care, even though those fines are huge and it’s a serious issue. They just don’t take it seriously. The certification in and of itself doesn’t necessarily mean a whole lot. You really have to actually do your own research and ask a lot of questions.”
Complying with the rule costs contractors more per job. As a result, some less scrupulous contractors attempt to skirt the regulations in order to offer lower prices. Plicanic said she received such lowball offers in exchange for looking the other way. She refused. After a lot of research and questions, Plicanic finally found contractors who had the proper qualifications and took her concerns seriously.
“What good is it if one consumer hires a contractor who is trained and certified in lead abatement, (but) her or his neighbor hires one who is not, either through ignorance or an (often unfounded) belief that a few dollars can be saved by so doing?” asks Don Buckter, a lead-certified painter and owner of highly rated Don Buckter Painting in San Francisco. “Most consumers still don’t ‘get it;’ the serious health hazard they expose their neighbors, their families, and themselves to when they hire a painting contractor ready to flaunt the mandated rules and regulations for lead safe protocols during the painting process. No licensed contractor has an excuse for not knowing about the health hazards and her or his responsibility and knowledge of the means to abate that hazard.”
The EPA rule prohibits commonly mistaken practices, such as open-torch burning and using high-heat guns. High speed equipment, such as grinders and sanders, are also prohibited, unless they are equipped with a HEPA filter. Prior to the new rule, all contractors were required to do was give homeowners a pamphlet warning about the dangers of lead paint. Now, contractors must perform a cleaning verification upon completion of a renovation, which involves a visual inspection, cleaning with a HEPA vacuum and conducting a wipe test.
Homeowners who want a more comprehensive clearance test, which involves collecting dust samples to be analyzed for lead content, should expect to pay more for that service from a professional that specializes in lead testing.
Angie Hicks is the founder of Angie's List, the nation’s most trusted resource for local consumer reviews on everything from home repair to healthcare.