Spokane’s South Hill provides painting contractor Shon Vantuyl with most of his clients. Many of the Craftsman-style homes he works on date to the early 1900s, when lead was a primary ingredient in oil-based paints.
In the past, “you’d go out to a 100-year-old house and scrape away,” said Vantuyl, who owns Northern Lights Paint with his wife, Michelle. “You’d just be careful not to kick up dust, and you’d take precautions if there were kids in the house.”
But in the near future, contractors will have to take greater precautions to protect people from lead dust, a toxin linked to lower IQ in children. On April 22, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency will start enforcing new rules for safe removal of lead-based paint.
The rules apply to any paid contractor or handyman – including electricians, plumbers and painters – who work on homes built before 1978. Remodeling projects in other buildings from that era where children age 5 or younger are present, such as schools or day care centers, also fall under the rules.
Sanding walls, repairing plaster or even replacing windows or carpets can release invisible clouds of lead dust.
A certified renovator who has taken an eight-hour class in dust management must be present at each work site to teach workers how to safely contain and clean up lead dust. Work areas must be screened off with sheets of heavy-duty plastic or other impervious materials. The cleanup includes wiping down walls or vacuuming them with a machine equipped with special filters.
“This rule protects people in their homes,” said Wallace Reid, EPA’s lead team leader in Seattle. “When we see elevated blood-lead levels in kids, it’s usually because of a lead dust hazard, not because they were eating paint chips.”
Before 1978, lead was used as a pigment, preservative and drying agent in oil-based paints. In addition to lower IQ, lead exposure has been linked to behavioral problems in children and delayed physical development. In adults, lead exposure is associated with low sperm counts, kidney disease and cardiovascular problems.
Vantuyl recently completed the eight-hour class on safe lead paint removal. He anticipates that complying with the new EPA rules will cost him about $1,500 in training, certification fees and new equipment, including a specialized vacuum.
The payoff is lowered risk of lead exposure for consumers.
In Eastern Washington, a 2-year-old boy was recently diagnosed with lead poisoning after he was exposed to paint dust from an exterior house-painting project. The boy’s blood-lead level peaked at 24 micrograms per deciliter but has since dropped, said Cynthia Sanderson, the Washington Department of Commerce’s lead program manager.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, adverse health effects can occur from blood-lead levels of 10 micrograms per deciliter or less.
“Children in the crawling stage are at greatest risk,” Sanderson said. “They’re down on the floor and their hands are in their mouth.”
Through the 1940s, paint manufacturers frequently added lead to oil-based paints. Over time, the lead content dropped as substitute materials became available. In 1978, the U.S. Consumer Products Commission banned all but trace amounts of lead in paint.
Exemptions to the new rules are available for older buildings without lead-based paint. But a qualified lead risk assessor must determine that the paint used was lead-free, Reid said. Small interior projects that disturb less than six square feet also are exempt.
Failure to abide by the new rules could result in large fines for contractors. The maximum fine is $37,500 per violation per day, Reid said.
The new rules will bring parity to remodeling projects, said Sanderson, Washington’s lead program manager.
When contractors weatherize or remodel low-income housing using federal dollars, they’re already required to use safe lead-handling practices, she said. Homeowners paying out of their own pocket didn’t have the same protections.
People doing their own remodeling are exempt from the new rules.
“But I strongly recommend that they get training, too,” Sanderson said. “You could end up getting poisoned if you don’t work lead-safe.”
Eventually, the state of Washington will take over enforcement of the EPA rules – which the federal government encourages states to do.
In Washington, Sanderson said she’ll focus on making sure contractors take the necessary classes instead of paying hefty fines.
“This is an education issue,” she said. “Quite frankly, I want them to get the training and follow the rules.”
Subscribe to the Morning Review newsletter
Get the day’s top headlines delivered to your inbox every morning by subscribing to our newsletter.