EPA rules on lead paint in home renovations will soon take effect

By Deborah K. Dietsch
Special to The Washington Post
Saturday, April 17, 2010; E01

Hiring someone to renovate your older home is about to become more complicated and expensive. Starting on Earth Day, April 22, contractors working on almost all homes built before 1978 must prove they have the Environmental Protection Agency's stamp of approval to do the work -- or face fines of up to $37,500 a day.

A new federal rule aimed at reducing exposure to toxic lead-paint chips and dust requires renovators to be trained and certified in EPA-approved methods of containing and cleaning up work areas.

"We're scrambling to learn the procedures as quickly as we can," said contractor Ethan Landis of Landis Construction in the District. On Friday, he and three of his project managers were scheduled to learn the methods during an all-day course run by the Connor Institute in Gaithersburg, for $225 each. "Now that the deadline is here, the real costs are going to become evident," Landis said. "There is a huge upfront cost just for training alone."

The EPA estimates that its new rule will add $8 to $167 to the cost of the average interior remodeling job, but contractors say the expense to homeowners will be much greater. "The EPA has grossly underestimated the costs to comply on any job. I can see my labor costs go up by thousands of dollars," said Vince Butler, who runs Butler Brothers Corp. in Clifton and is president of the Northern Virginia Building Industry Association.

Butler estimates that the extra time and effort required for protecting, cleaning and testing construction areas in pre-1978 homes will add 5 percent to 30 percent in fees on small renovation jobs.

"Expect to add another $500 to $1,000 for remodeling a kitchen, painting a couple rooms or replacing several windows," Landis said. "That is the minimal additional cost to perform lead-safe work practices and associated documentation."

The EPA rule applies to almost every type of renovation -- from paint scraping to window replacement and carpet removal (which can disturb painted baseboards) -- carried out by contractors in pre-1978 houses occupied by young children and pregnant women.

As written in 2008, the regulations allowed some owners of homes built before 1978 to opt out of the requirements. Homeowners could sign a waiver stating that they had no children younger than 6 visiting or living in the home, that no pregnant women were residing there and that the property was not a child-occupied facility.

But a court settlement reached last year by the EPA and several advocacy groups, including the Sierra Club, led the federal agency to remove this opt-out provision from the rule to protect more people from lead poisoning.

The EPA is now seeking to amend the regulation so it would apply to all homes built before 1978, when lead paint was banned. The final determination regarding this revision will be made April 22, EPA spokesman Dale Kemery said.

That will mean only the most minor remodeling jobs are exempt from the regulation: interiors less than six square feet in size and exterior repairs made to areas smaller than 20 square feet.

Housing for the elderly and disabled (unless a child younger than 6 lives or will live there) and zero-bedroom dwellings such as efficiency apartments are also not affected by the rule.

Do-it-yourselfers still have an out: The EPA rule applies only to renovations performed by businesses for compensation. Still, the agency recommends that homeowners follow the procedures in its "Renovate Right" pamphlet, available at http://epa.gov/lead/pubs/renovaterightbrochure.pdf. Nine out of 10 homes built before 1940 still contain lead paint, according to the EPA. The soft metal was frequently used as a primary ingredient in oil-based house paint until the 1950s and 1960s, when it was replaced with titanium dioxide and latex paints became more available.

The EPA recommends testing for lead paint before renovating, but homeowners shouldn't assume the results will be reliable. "Commercially available test kits that are supposed to ensure that there is no lead paint in the home are inaccurate between 42 and 78 percent of the time," said Matt Watkins, an environmental policy analyst with the National Association of Home Builders.

Those inaccuracies put homeowners at risk for health ailments associated with exposure to lead, including nervous disorders and reproductive problems. Lead is especially toxic for young children, causing a variety of health problems as well as learning and behavioral difficulties.

In 1991, Louis Sullivan, then-secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, went so far as to characterize lead poisoning as the "number one environmental threat to the health of children in the United States." The following year, Congress passed the Residential Lead-Based Paint Hazard Reduction Act, which led the EPA to propose regulations designed to ensure that renovators would be properly trained in lead-safe work practices.

These procedures call for applying protective plastic sheeting to floors and other surfaces and extending the sheets a minimum of six feet in all directions from the location where the existing paint will be disturbed. Affected areas must be misted with water to minimize dust, and components must be pulled apart instead of pounded or hammered to prevent the spread of debris. Power sanders and grinders must be fitted with HEPA vacuum attachments to capture dust, and heat guns must be set below 1,100 degrees Fahrenheit. Workers are advised to wear respirators and disposable suits, gloves and shoe covers.

By April 22, the EPA estimates, 100,000 renovators will have been trained in such procedures nationwide. But that's not enough to meet the current need for certified remodelers, insists the National Association of Home Builders, which petitioned EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson this month to delay implementing the lead-paint rule.

"The fact remains that as hard as they try, our members can't get into training classes," Watkins said. "There are states with no training providers. There won't be enough remodelers, window installers, plumbers, painters or other contractors certified by the deadline."

Bob Bixler, a scheduler with the Connor Institute, said his company now offers 65 courses a week in locations across the country to keep up with the demand. "We are adding courses every day," he said. "The word about the rule didn't get to contractors very well and they are now trying to catch up."

However, Rebecca Morley, executive director of the nonprofit National Center for Healthy Housing, said contractors have had "plenty of warning" about the new rules, and she estimated that 150,000 will be trained by next week's effective date. "Countless children have already suffered the consequences of lead exposure due to delays in finalizing the rule," she said. "Any delay at this point is unnecessary and will only harm children for years to come."

In addition to ensuring that EPA-approved procedures are followed, certified renovators must check to see whether dust, debris or residue is present after the job is done. Then they are required to wipe disposable cleaning cloths, both wet and dry, over floors, countertops, windowsills and other surfaces and compare the cloths with a card distributed by the EPA. If the cloths match or are lighter than the color of the card, they indicate that the surfaces are considered adequately cleaned of dust, which could contain lead.

As part of the rules, contractors are required to keep records of a renovation project for three years to prove that their work was performed according to EPA-approved methods. As for enforcing the rule, the "EPA will respond to tips and complaints and make sure firms are certified," Kemery said in an e-mail.

Said Butler: "We have to be our own policemen. When we see a job done outside the rules, we have to report it. That's the only way to level the playing field for contractors."

Like Butler, Landis worries about competition from untrained contractors. He predicts a backlash against the regulation from homeowners unwilling to pay more for remodeling during tough economic times. "Customers are going to be tempted to hire uncertified contractors because of the extra costs," Landis said. "You are going to have customers who won't want to pay a premium, and you are going to have contractors who are willing to be fined to get the work."

To search for certified renovation firms by Zip code, go to the EPA's referral site, http://cfpub.epa.gov/flpp/searchrrp_firm.htm.

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