If you renovate homes, on the side or for a living, the federal rules that apply to you will change next week for any project you take on where lead paint lurks. The regulations, put in place by the Environmental Protection Agency, have been in the works for years.
Rebecca L. Morley, executive director of the Columbia-based National Center for Healthy Housing, covers the basics -- and why homeowners should care -- in this Q&A:
Question: What’s required of people renovating homes with lead paint now, and how is that changing?
Answer: Currently, there really aren’t any requirements for people who are renovating older homes, except that they do have to provide some notification to the owners that there may be lead paint there. … But with the new rule, they’ll actually be required to follow a certain set of practices. So certain things are banned: For instance, they can’t belt-sand away old paint, or they can’t use heat guns to remove the paint. ... It just is requiring them not to create any new hazards during the course of the work that they do.
The focus really is, if they’re going to be disturbing paint … that they don’t stir up lead dust and they don’t leave it on the surfaces when they finish the job. ... A common misperception about lead is you have to eat paint chips in order to get poisoned, but lead dust, which is generated from the deterioration of lead-based paint or these renovation activities, [is] the most insidious exposure threat. That’s because the lead dust isn’t visible and just minute amounts of it can result in an exposure — and a serious exposure.
That understanding, which has come to light over the last couple of decades, has really changed our emphasis about how we deal with lead. You can create significant hazards simply by virtue of scraping it off. We want to clean up really well at the end of [renovation] jobs.
Q: How old does a building need to be in order to fall under this regulation?
A. It applies to any housing and/or commercial and public buildings built before 1978. The commercial and public buildings is for child-occupied facilities, so that gets your daycares and schools.
Q: ’78 was when lead paint was banned?
Q: What must renovators do to comply?
If you’re working in older homes, you first have to become a certified firm, and that just means registering and paying a $300 fee, but certified renovation firms also have to have certified renovators working for them. The certified renovator needs to take a one-day training.
Their job is to be at the job at the front end, ... making sure containment is being done properly so it doesn’t get distributed throughout the house. ... And they do what’s called the cleaning verification when the job is done. … It’s a white glove test, and they run over the surface with an electrostatic cloth, basically, to determine whether the color of the Swiffer is lighter than the verification card.
That person’s responsibility is also to train the other people on the job in how to work lead-safely. ... More than 50,000 folks have been trained nationwide, and EPA expects it will have trained about 120,000 come April 22.
Q: How is your center involved?
A: The National Center for Healthy Housing is an accredited training provider.
Q: Are all renovators aware of the new rules?
A: It is hard to stomach the idea that people are unaware of it, given its long regulatory history. That said, ... we understand there’s probably a bunch of contractors that don’t know. We figure the ones that know the most belong to local associations.
Q: What sorts of problems can crop up when a home with lead paint is renovated?
There’s the dust that’s generated in the debris; it can contaminate the interior of the house, or if it’s exterior work, it can contaminate the soil outside. ... Those are the key hazards, and it’s unsafe practices that result in these conditions.
In the past, there really was really very little recourse, either for the owner of the home being worked on, or for an adjacent neighbor, to ensure safety.
Q: What difference will this rule make for a city with old housing stock, such as Baltimore?
A: I think it could make a huge impact in Baltimore. ... Because of the rental registry law, the number of kids being poisoned in rental units is starting to balance out with the number of kids being poisoned in owner-occupied units. ... There’s a ton of renovation that happens in those older rowhomes.
Q: What should people do if they want to renovate a home with lead paint?
A: If they’re renovating an older home and they’re hiring a contractor, they should ask to see the person's certified renovator certificate. ... You need it for the certified renovator showing up on your job, but also, you want to see proof that the firm is a certified firm.
And references. There are some easy questions you can ask ... "Was there a lot of dust in the house? Did they use plastic? Did you feel they did a proper clean-up job?" Since this law is fairly new, they might not have a long track record as a certified renovator, but if they have been a careful contractor in the past, that’s a good indication that they’ll do good, safe lead work in the future.
Q: How would a renovator use plastic?
A: The plastic is used for two reasons: One is ... to seal off that work area. Another thing you might do is put it down on the floor, because a lot of this dust and debris will fall on the floor.
Q: What has been the reaction to the rules?
A: I think there’s been some pushback by the contractor world about costs in this. EPA estimates it’s about $35 in extra costs per job. ...
It really depends on your baseline practice. If you typically practice pretty clean work and do a good job with containment, it won’t be much in additional costs. But if you’re a pretty sloppy contractor, yeah, it’s going to cost you more.
Q: Remind us why this issue matters to homeowners. What are the health ramifications?
A: The long term effects of lead exposure are irreversible. Children under 6 are most susceptible because their neurological systems are still developing. It interferes with their growth and development. It causes ... learning disabilities, behavioral problems. At very high levels, it can cause coma and death. I think a lot of times people are doing these renovations while they’re expecting. Lead dust can travel through the placental barrier. If you’re an expectant mom, you could definitely poison your child.
If you know that you can save your child several IQ points down the road, most people would be willing to hire a person who can demonstrate that they can do this work safely.