EPA lead-safety requirements cause controversy

EPA lead-safety requirements cause controversy

By Paul F. P. Pogue

For many years, contractors have simply been encouraged to use lead-safe work practices. Starting in 2010, according to new rules recently unveiled by the Environmental Protection Agency, they will be required to use them. Even so, medical experts and others are concerned that the new rules still don't go far enough to protect children.

"They might actually give people a false sense of security that they [or their contractors] have done things appropriately," says Dr. Adam Spanier, director of the Cincinnati Children's Hospital Lead Clinic. "This is a first step in the right direction, but there's lots of room for additional improvement."

Spanier and other medical experts worry that the new rules don't ban dry-scraping paint, which they say releases lead dust into the air, and only require that supervisors - and not workers - be trained in safe practices. Even minute amounts of lead can cause damage to the developing brains of small children. Lead paint was widely used in houses until it was banned in 1978, and it still poses a threat to owners of older homes with young children.

The EPA responds that as long as contractors follow other safe practices, such as lining rooms with plastic tarps, dry-scraping should not be a problem. It also says supervisors will still be required to instruct their employees in lead-safe practices and ensure those standards are followed.

Another big concern raised by medical experts involves the verification standards, which require contractors to check work areas with a cloth and determine if any dust remains visible after construction. These doctors instead support clearance testing, which involves sending dust wipe samples for laboratory analysis.

Dr. Rogene Henderson, a respiratory researcher and chair of the Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee, which often reviews rules for the EPA, says the cloth test worried them.

"They are using a very crude method of testing," she says. "But they didn't pay any attention to what we said."

Dr. Bruce Lanphear, a veteran lead researcher and a member of the advisory committee, believes the EPA went with the technique because it's easier and cheaper.

"You can't see lead," says Lanphear, who estimates clearance testing would cost between $150 and $300 per job on average. "You can't look at a floor and know it's safe."

Tamara Rubin of Portland, Ore., agrees. The homeowner and mother, who became a lead safety activist after two of her children were poisoned during a renovation, says clearance testing showed high lead levels in her home even after a cloth test indicated it was safe.

"The only way you can know for sure is clearance testing," she says.

But EPA spokesperson Dale Kemery says clearance testing would add needless cost and delay to projects, and that the effectiveness of lead-safe practices should render a clearance test unnecessary. Dr. Mary Jean Brown, chief of the lead poisoning branch for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, adds that the rules fill an important gap in safety.

"This will provide a level of protection to homeowners that wasn't there in the past," she says. "It extends not only to the homeowners, but to the contractors and their families, because they won't be tracking lead into their own homes."

Prior to the new rules, the EPA had one requirement for contractors - that they warn homeowners in pre-1978 housing of lead dangers. Wendy Cleland-Hamnett, EPA Office of Pollution Prevention and Toxics deputy director, says the new requirements are much stronger.

"This is the first rule that we've done specifically to address lead-based paint hazards created by renovation," Cleland-Hamnett says. "It requires hands-on training in lead-safe work practices and cleanup."

The new rules cover all pre-1978 rental housing, homes where children under age 6 and pregnant mothers reside, and child-care facilities and schools where lead paint will be disturbed. They take effect in April 2010, which allows time for trainers to become accredited and contractors to be trained.

Critics say enforcement is an important element.

"If they're not enforced, they'll just be more rules nobody cares about," says Ed Topp, owner of The Lead Inspectors in Chicago and a former contractor who accidentally poisoned his son with lead tracked home from job sites in the 1990s. "Contractors will only follow them if they fear getting fined or hauled into court."

The EPA can issue administrative and criminal sanctions, plus impose fines of up to $25,000 per day. "Obviously we hope it doesn't get to that point, but it's good to have that sort of capability in truly egregious cases," Cleland-Hamnett says.

According to Dan Taddei, director of education for the National Association of the Remodeling Industry, many contractors already follow lead-safe practices and should have little problem following the rules.

"We've pretty much embraced them," Taddei says. "But, it will add time and cost to a project - we don't know how much yet."

The EPA estimates complying with the rules will cost contractors around $35 per job. However, the National Association of Home Builders believes the rules could raise costs as much as 20 percent.

"We need to make sure that the cost of compliance is not so high as to discourage homeowners from hiring a trained remodeler," the NAHB says in a statement. "Otherwise, the rule creates a reverse incentive for consumers to do the work themselves or hire untrained contractors. Dealing with lead is not a DIY job."

The EPA emphasizes that the regulations are not designed to eliminate all lead-based hazards - which is the purpose of abatement - but to minimize those caused by renovations. Even critics agree that the new standards are an improvement over the earlier federal guidelines.

"It's admirable that there's an attempt to increase the public's awareness of lead hazards," Spanier says. "It brings up some good advice on how to prevent exposure."

Rubin expects that contractors with the best practices will shake out as awareness increases.

"The contractors who do the right thing and go above and beyond are going to get all the work," Rubin says. "People will be learning a lot more about this in the next few years."

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