WASHINGTON — Contractors across the country must take additional precautions when renovating houses where children could be exposed to lead dust from old paint, a safety measure that could add thousands of dollars to projects just as the remodeling industry tries to recover from the recession.
A federal rule that takes effect Thursday forces contractors to use “lead-safe” practices when working on homes, day-care centers and schools built before 1978, the year lead paint was banned for residential use because of health risks. Many contractors complain that the government has not provided enough trainers to help them meet the deadline and want it extended.
“The country is not ready for this,” said Donna Shirey, president of Shirey Contracting in Issaquah, Wash., and the chairwoman of a remodelers council for the National Association of Home Builders.
About 800 NAHB members were in Washington for the group’s spring meeting and many were making an eleventh-hour attempt to lobby lawmakers for a delay for the rule.
The Environmental Protection Agency issued the lead-paint rule in 2008 because more than a million American children a year are at risk of being poisoned by lead-based paint in their homes, leading to learning disorders and behavioral problems, EPA spokesman Dale Kemery said. Two years was adequate time to prepare and the agency is sticking to its timetable, Kemery said.
Workers will have to be certified as lead-safe by the EPA and wear special gear outfitted with air filters, goggles and hoods. Work sites will have to be protected with heavy plastic and cleaned thoroughly with special vacuums, with warning signs posted.
“It’s going to look like there’s astronauts in the yard,” said Charlie Dorsey, regional sales manager for Gorell Windows and Doors, a Pennsylvania company that makes replacement windows.
While most newer structures do not have lead-based paint, an estimated 38 million homes built before 1978 contain some lead-based paint.
If not detected early, high levels of lead exposure can damage the brain and nervous system, result in behavior and learning problems such as hyperactivity, or cause slow growth. Lead also can cause reproductive problems, high blood pressure, nervous disorders and memory problems in adults.
The lead-renovation rule “provides simple, low-cost, commonsense steps contractors can take during their work to protect children and families,” Kemery said. Under the rule, at least one person per job site must complete an eight-hour training course offered by private companies.
To be certified, a contractor needs to take a one-day course. As of Monday, an estimated 146,000 people were trained, allowing many times that number of workers to stay on the job, Kemery said. About 212,000 firms and 236,000 individuals need the training, the EPA says.
Rebecca Morley, executive director of the National Center for Healthy Housing, a nonprofit group that advocates safe homes for children, said the construction industry has had plenty of time to prepare for the lead-paint rule.
“I think it’s a change, and whenever you have a big change like this you are going to have pushback from the industry,” Morley said.
Morley called the rule crucial to protect children. Contrary to common belief, she said, most lead poisonings do not occur when kids put lead-paint chips into their mouths, but rather are the result of exposure to lead dust from renovation work.
“It’s important to contain the work area to keep dust from spreading,” she said.
The home builders group estimates that the new rule could cost between $500 and $1,500 for large projects costing more than $5,000. The EPA counters that additional expenses may be as low as $8 to $167. Costs for air filters and other gear worn by workers are likely to be spread out over many jobs.
Economic analyses conducted by the EPA show the rule is not overly burdensome, in light of the potentially severe health consequences from exposure to lead-based paint, Kemery said.
Many contractors already follow some of the work practices required by the rule, such as using heavy plastic sheets to cover floors and objects in the work area. The EPA said its estimates do not include costs of those practices.