Lead paint law holds contractors to stiff safety standards
Steven Rappaport is looking for a contractor to redo the kitchen floor in his 1909 home in San Francisco's Mission District, and he wants to make sure the renovation won't expose him to any toxins that might be lurking in the paint or materials used to construct his Victorian-style abode.
"I look for the sensitivity of the contractor to see whether they seem to be aware that it's an issue," says Rappaport, who knows about the dangers of lead-based paint, having had his home inspected for lead hazards when his son was small.
For his upcoming renovation, Rappaport is relying on his best judgment by interviewing prospective flooring companies about what they'll do to contain hazardous substances, but now a new Environmental Protection Agency law will help him with his hiring decisions.
"I definitely think it's a good thing to have the regulation in place," Rappaport says. "The more people who are educated about it, the better it will be."
Is it enough?
No safe lead level
One lead expert thinks the new EPA renovation rule is a good first step, but is concerned the lack of clearance testing provides the illusion of lead safety.
The federal regulation — known as the Renovation, Repair and Painting Program — holds contractors responsible for following strict protocol to minimize and contain lead dust during home improvements on residences built before 1978, the year lead paint was banned in the U.S.
According to EPA estimates, some 37.8 million homes and child-occupied facilities will fall under the aegis of the new rule.
"I think it's really important people know lead dust from renovation can cause elevated blood levels in children and in others," says Maria Doa, director of the EPA's National Program Chemicals Division. "Prevention is so important. You can do that by minimizing exposure to the dust."
While some contractors and homeowners say complying with the new law will drive up costs, many hail it as a positive step toward protecting children, pregnant women and others from lead poisoning.
But lead safety advocates, contractors and public health officials say that too few homeowners and contractors know about the law and that the EPA won't be able to effectively enforce it.
The truth about lead
The law requires contractors to get certified in lead-safe work practices if their work disturbs more than 6 square feet of paint on the interior or a 20-square-foot section on the exterior of a home built before 1978. The older your home is, the more likely it contains lead-based paint, which can turn into a fine, ingestible dust if disturbed.
"There are a lot of misconceptions about lead," says Rebecca Morley, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based National Center for Healthy Housing. "People think it's a problem of the past. People still believe that kids can only get lead poisoning by eating paint chips and that it's a problem with parenting and not with housing."
Health experts say anyone can be poisoned by lead, though children below the age of 6 are at particular risk. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates some 250,000 U.S. children between the ages of 1 and 5 suffer from lead poisoning, meaning they have more than 10 micrograms of lead per deciliter of blood. Children who have elevated blood lead levels can experience developmental and behavioral problems down the line.
Too few trained
Companies in some 50 categories on Angie's List — from remodeling to windows to flooring — could be affected by the rule. But advocates, trainers, contractors and public health officials interviewed for this story expressed concern that there were too few instructors to get all contractors trained by the April 22 deadline.
The EPA projects that 212,000 firms and 236,000 people need certification in order to comply with the law. But as of press time, only 817 firms and 13,669 contractors have done so, according to the agency. The EPA had only 133 accredited trainers, though Doa pointed out that some trainers travel out of state to host classes.
"We believe there's sufficient capacity," Doa says. She expects demand to increase as the deadline approaches. "In fact, classes are being canceled because they're not filling up." However, there were several states that had no trainers listed on the EPA's website in late February, including Rhode Island, Louisiana and Arizona. The EPA declined to comment on this point.
In order to get the word out, groups like the National Association of Home Builders, the National Association of the Remodeling Industry and labor unions have held webinars, produced podcasts and distributed information about the rule via print and online publications. The National Center for Healthy Housing has held classes to certify trainers around the country.
"I think the hardest people to reach are going to be the handypeople — the guy who works out of the back of his truck," says Patrick MacRoy, an EPA-certified trainer with the center.
Many contractors who are already certified or plan to express concerns about others who aren't aware of the law and those who will knowingly flaunt it. Many contractors who've been certified expressed frustration that the EPA hadn't launched a marketing campaign earlier.
Karl Derr of highly rated Integrity Construction in Indianapolis practiced building a containment barrier around a wooden door frame with plastic sheeting and other lead-safe practices at a certification class in early February attended by contractors from nearby cities like Chicago and Louisville, Ky.
Derr says most of his professional colleagues are unfamiliar with the new EPA rules. "I'm telling some of my buds and they have no idea what I'm talking about," says Derr, who supports the law. "Everyone and their mother knew for a year that [analog] broadcast television was going away, but not when it's something like this."As of press time, Doa said the agency planned to ramp up its publicity as the deadline for certification approached by reaching out to contractors through magazines, radio and other media.
Dave Mallas of A-rated KD Remodeling in Lombard, Ill., hadn't heard about the EPA's program in early February. "Apparently they didn't give me the memo — I must have been out that day," says Mallas, who thinks concerns about lead are exaggerated even though he regularly works in homes that are 100 years old or older.
Mallas says the EPA rule is "good to know if we're redoing a nursery, but I'm not going to change my work habits."
Certified trainers say they're concerned that noncompliant firms will outbid them for jobs and unwitting customers won't know the difference.
They say the cost of following the guidelines — considering record-keeping requirements, time and extra materials — could add anywhere from hundreds to thousands of dollars to renovation jobs, depending on the size, though the EPA estimates it will add $35 per job on average.
But Bill Simone, president of the Custom Design & Construction in Los Angeles, says the EPA can't adequately project the costs because it's not out in the field, doing the work.
"To ask the EPA what this is going to cost is like going to a podiatrist for a brain tumor," Simone says. He says the extra time and materials needed to comply with the law will hurt his bottom line. "It's a business killer, plain and simple."
Evanston, Ill., home inspector Kurt Mitenbuler says the requirements are straightforward, easy to implement and unlikely to add exorbitant costs.
"Any well-managed construction project would already take into account these things just for cleanliness, just so you don't have crap floating through the house, let alone lead-based crap," says Mitenbuler, who's an industry vet of 30 years and familiar with the law. "I don't view the new restrictions as being punitive."
The new law may also include an "opt-out" provision, allowing homeowners to sign an acknowledgement that would waive their contractor's obligation to use lead-safe practices if they live in the residence, no children under 6 or pregnant women live there and there are no child-occupied facilities, such as a day care, on the premises.
Homeowners living in pre-1978 homes should expect to receive a "Renovate Right" pamphlet from their contractor before they begin work. Unless they opt out, they should also see their contractor removing all furniture from the work area, creating barriers with plastic sheeting and posting warning signs.
Some 8.4 million renovation projects will be regulated by the new rule in the first year. A few states, including Wisconsin, Iowa and North Carolina, so far have adopted their own Renovation, Repair and Painting programs, which allow them to institute more stringent rules and have more local oversight. The EPA is hoping other states will voluntarily get aboard in coming months.
The EPA acknowledges its own initial efforts around the law will be focused on bringing contractors into compliance, though Doa says violators will still be punished.
"The focus will be bringing people into the fold," she says. "[But] we certainly do intend to address violations. We'll certainly deal with tips and complaints where we know there are issues."
Clearance versus cleaning verification
Many lead safety crusaders say the EPA's program is a reasonable, common-sense approach, but health experts believe it should go further by requiring a clearance test after the renovation is complete instead of cleaning verification.
Clearance testing involves collecting samples and having them analyzed at a lab for lead content while the cleaning verification involves doing a visual inspection, cleaning with a HEPA vacuum and a conducting a wipe test with dry and damp cloths.
Joseph Walseth, who works for the San Francisco Department of Health's childhood lead program, applauds EPA's rules, but doesn't feel the cleaning verification is adequate.
"If there is a dust clearance done at the end of the work, where sampling is done to make sure that there is no residual lead dust, that would be truly a comprehensive approach to the problem of lead hazards generated due to work that disturbs lead-based paint," he says.
But Shelley Bruce, who supervises the Wisconsin Division of Public Health's lead program, says cleaning verification is reasonable because renovators aren't lead abatement professionals.
"They're under the obligation with this rule to leave that house as clean, if not cleaner, than when they entered," she says. "Using the visual inspection and the cleaning pads and that protocol makes pretty sure they are leaving it no dirtier than when they arrived." She adds that the burden is on the homeowners to pursue more stringent testing.
Why it matters
Experts say anyone with concerns about lingering lead-dust hazards should consider hiring professionals licensed to conduct testing and abatement. Member Alison Stevens discovered her son Trevor had an elevated lead blood level after having some exterior painting done on her 1890 home in Arlington, Mass., last year.
After the incident, her family had their home lead tested and abated. "Lead dust hadn't even occurred to me as a source of concern," says Stevens, whose son now has a healthy lead level. She says the new EPA regulation offers peace of mind for future renovations.
"It seems like a smart place for the government to step in, especially in a place where the public is not fully educated, like we weren't."