Lead Paint Still Lurking in Indy
lead safety training procedures
It’s an invisible poison, unleashed by scraping, sanding or melting paint — common techniques used in many home renovations. But how much do you really know about lead poisoning, and are you keeping your family safe from it?
As a 25-year veteran working in the design and renovation field, Sandi Perlman, owner of highly rated Blue Ridge Design on Indianapolis’ Northside, says her own lack of knowledge surprised her.
“I was shocked by all the things I learned,” she says, after completing lead-safe training mandated by the EPA. “I never really gave it a second thought before the RRP.”
The EPA created the Renovation, Repair and Painting Rule in 2010, requiring any contractor who comes into contact with lead paint to become EPA-certified and follow strict protocol to minimize and contain lead dust during projects on homes built before 1978.
Lawmakers banned the substance for residential use in 1978, but contractors working in lead paint operated with very little regulation until the EPA instituted the RRP. The regulations require contractors to follow strict containment and cleanup measures if they disturb more than 6 square feet of interior paint or 20 square feet of exterior paint.
Now, Perlman says, she takes great pains to follow EPA-approved procedures to contain and clean every work site in a home that potentially contains lead. “I should have known about it long before,” she says. “I grew up in an era where we didn’t think it was an issue. But it’s always been an issue, even though it never really came up.”
Is your home safe from lead?
With National Lead Poisoning Prevention Week set for Oct. 19-25, Angie’s List decided to assess lead safety awareness by making “secret shopper” calls to 150 randomly selected painters, remodelers and window contractors. Sadly, our staff found that a significant number of those renovation contractors — nearly 11 percent — offered consumers bad advice when it comes to lead safety. But even more disconcerting, nearly 32 percent of those contractors told us they did not have the required EPA lead-safety certification.
According to the EPA’s latest statistics, 137,256 firms currently hold certification nationwide, and more than 510,000 individuals have completed certified renovator training. The EPA lists 848 certified firms within and around Indianapolis.
Joan Ketterman, who conducts training for individual certified renovators at the nonprofit Environmental Management Institute in Indianapolis, says most contractors are aware of the RRP, but she encounters some who just think it’s more government regulation.
“Once they get into the class and we explain the benefits, some of them take it to heart, some do it because they have to, and others pretend they’re going to do it and then don’t,” Ketterman says. “In some cases, if the customer doesn’t ask for it, they’re not going to do it.”
Wendy Cleland-Hamnett, director of the EPA’s office of pollution prevention and toxics, says more homeowners now seem aware of the dangers if lead-safe work practices aren’t used. But in order to level the playing field for contractors following the law, the EPA needs to do more educational and outreach programs.
“Our certified firms mentioned that they sometimes have to compete with firms underbidding jobs because that firm is uncertified and is willing to work without lead-safe work practices,” she says. “Those firms may be skirting other requirements as well.”
In February, the EPA announced that it fined 35 companies a total of $274,000 for failing to get the required certification, follow lead-safe work practices and/or ensure their subcontractors followed RRP standards.
In April, the EPA also socked Lowe’s Home Centers with the largest fine thus far — $500,000 for violations in record keeping and work practice standards. Lowe’s agreed to a corporate-wide compliance program to ensure that contractors it hires to perform work for its customers comply with the RRP rule, the EPA says. Calls to Lowe’s corporate office for comment were not returned before press time.
“Hiring an EPA-certified renovation firm … is the only way to be sure the firm is aware of the rule and all of its requirements for protecting the public,” says Jennifer Colaizzi, the EPA’s press officer. “However, continued oversight by federal, state and local governments, and in particular by consumers, is still needed.”
At Angie’s List, any contractor who performs this type of work and fails to provide proof of EPA certification, is excluded indefinitely from category and keyword searches on the List and a notice is added to alert members.
Nationwide, about 40 percent of the housing stock may still have lead paint, according to the EPA. That number is the same for Angie’s List member households in the Indianapolis area — nearly 40 percent report that they live in a pre-1978 home.
Karla Johnson, the Marion County Health Department’s Lead Safe and Healthy Homes administrator, says the county offers free services to residents, including lead testing in the home and soil, and blood-lead level testing in children. She says most home and soil inspections are completed within a week.
“I used to do many inspections, and what I found was a lot of stereotypes that lead paint was only a problem for people who were poor, minorities, or in a rundown home,” Johnson says. “But I’ve seen some gorgeous, expensive older homes with chipping lead paint where the occupants didn’t see themselves as living in a lead hazard.”
The source of lead contamination may come from somewhere totally unexpected.
Megan Tribble learned this when her son Jacob, then 1, tested with high lead levels in 2010. Since her family lived in a new home in Noblesville at the time, she had no idea where it might be coming from. When lead testers checked her home, they found no lead anywhere — except for trace amounts in the area where her ironworker husband usually left his boots when he got home from work.
“Jacob would crawl around that entryway and later put his hands in his mouth,” she says.
Now her husband leaves his boots outside and changes out of work clothes before coming into the house. While the Tribble family thinks Jacob’s early diagnosis helped avoid any long-lasting effects, they continue to be cautious. When the family decided to move into an older home in Danville, Tribble says she checked it with lead test strips and discovered contamination, so they moved to another older home that had been fully remediated.
Lead debris can remain in a home for years, affecting future owners’ families. The issue ultimately becomes everyone’s problem, Ketterman says. “Just because you have no kids now doesn’t mean you might not have visitors, grandbabies, or sell it to someone else who has children,” she says. “To solve this, people need to think beyond ‘me, my little house and my little world.’ Lead paint affects all of us.”
Although the RRP law stipulates that companies can be fined up to $37,500 per violation, contractors say enforcement continues to be spotty and infrequent. “The first thing a contractor should do is give the homeowner an EPA booklet [‘Renovate Right’] that tells them what lead paint is and what’s going on,” says Larry Dorfman, owner of highly rated Dorfman Design Builders in Downtown Indianapolis.
Next, the contractor should seal off the work area entirely with double-plastic curtains taped or zipper-closed; prevent lead dust from leaving the area, such as by using disposable shoe covers; and use dust-generating tools equipped with HEPA filters. Afterward, all debris should be secured in plastic sheeting and disposed of off-site.
Dorfman, who’s served as executive director of the Central Indiana chapter of the National Association of the Remodeling Industry for years, says he worries that homeowners don’t know enough about lead-safe work practices to demand that their contractors follow the rules.
“Sometimes people balk at the cost, but when you’re looking for a contractor, you should look for the most professional contractor and not just the lowest bid,” he says. “Certification is very important.”
Greg Mrakich, owner of highly rated Greg Mrakich Painting on Indianapolis' Northwestside, worked in California before coming to Indiana. “It was something we had to be aware of,” the EPA-certified painter says, adding that he’s always used HEPA vacuums and sealed off rooms.
“I’ve always followed the regulations, and in fact I’ve lost quite a few jobs because of the cost it adds,” he says.
Veterans in the field disagree about the cost of doing projects in a lead-safe manner, but all agree that it impacts any job. The EPA estimates the cost of the average job increases by $35 to $376 if lead-safe practices are followed. In a nationwide online Angie’s List poll of more than 1,400 contractors, 34 percent said compliance added more than $500 to the cost of the average job, while another 24 percent said it added between $200 and $500.
Perlman estimates compliance adds as much as $1,000 to $2,000 to each job, not necessarily from specific parts of the regulations, but the logistics of implementation.
“You can’t have a person go in and out of the containment area to do something like dispose of waste unless they remove their suit, vacuum themselves off, make sure they’re perfectly clean, and put on a new suit when they go back in,” she says. “That’s a bit unrealistic. So I have somebody on the outside of the clean area who takes the bags of waste and hauls them to the dumpster. I’m paying two people to do one person’s job.”
Though enforcement, regulations and education all play a role, nearly every expert we interviewed echoed the same sentiment: Change happens most quickly when homeowners and parents demand it.
Tamara Rubin, who started the Lead Safe America Foundation, agrees. “Until parents realize the impact lead has had on our overall society, the change isn’t going to happen,” she says. “There’s a profound link between lead, crime, special education and health care. It’s impacting us on every front, and people just don’t get it.
Indy members with pre-1978 homes
Using data from the 23,679 Angie’s List member households in the Indianapolis area who provided their home-build year, here is a county-by-county breakdown showing the percentage with pre-1978 homes. The lightest color represents less than 30 percent, and the darkest 60 percent or higher.