By Percy Shearer
Since its invention, lead paint has been a quiet but persistent threat to human health. Yet only recently, in the past few decades, has the true severity of its hazards come to light. In the late '70s, the U.S. government finally banned lead paint - and, in the process, likely protected a huge number of adults and children from paint-based lead poisoning. Still, prohibiting the sale and use of lead paint wasn't enough. Last year, the Environmental Protection Agency went further, requiring that companies whose employees work around lead paint become certified according to a set of EPA guidelines. Like the 1978 ban, this government policy may be long overdue, but it's definitely better late than never. Now contractors who specialize in home renovation, repair, or painting (RRP) must obtain certification and follow very specific safety practices. The new program costs individual firms a bit more time and money, but in terms of health, it's bound to pay great dividends to both the public and RRP workers themselves. The EPA first published its Lead-Safe Certification Program in April of 2008. Two years later to the day, the measure took effect. It affects all workers who interact with lead paint in homes, schools, or child-care centers constructed before 1978. During the past few years, the agency has raised awareness about lead-safe certification, and the importance of hiring only certified companies, through a far-reaching PR campaign. According to the EPA's projections, more than 200,000 U.S. contractors will have worked on pre-1978 properties between April of 2010 and April of 2011. When it isn't being sanded, scraped, heated, or otherwise disturbed, lead paint doesn't tend to harm people or pets. When it's removed without caution, however, it certainly does. High-traffic parts of a house, like stairs and porches, are often major sites for lead-dust production. Even the soil around a house can become clogged with lead from exterior paint. A blood test should be administered to any child who has experienced extended contact with lead dust, or who may have consumed lead paint chips. If you're the landlord of a property built before 1978, you must inform would-be tenants of the presence of lead paint in the space for rent, as well as any special dangers it might pose. Sellers are equally obligated to give prospective buyers such information. A paint inspection and risk assessment can erase all doubt about how much lead is in a building's paint, and whether it's a potential hazard. The EPA's new program is, above all, a move to protect consumers. After all, children who inhale lead dust may eventually have trouble learning, behaving well, and thinking. In most cases, none of these deficiencies are evident until the harm is permanent. Lead hits kids' physiology harder than it does adults', which is one reason that more than a million children currently suffer from some degree of lead poisoning. Expectant mothers who ingest lead dust run the risk of damaging their unborn children. Other adults may simply be saddled with hypertension, reproductive dysfunction, nerve ailments, reduced memory and concentration, or muscle and joint pain. Two-thirds of American houses and apartment buildings were constructed before 1978, so the lead-safe program is truly no laughing matter. Moreover, workers who contain their project with plastic sheeting and wear protective clothing and masks are maximizing their own safety, too. They may also wish to undergo regular blood tests. Like most quality methods, lead-safe practices cost more than their dangerous counterparts. A company might spend $8 to $167 extra on a given project as a result; outdoor jobs that demand vertical containment nudge the bill even higher. Consumers unwilling to pay for greater safety may elect to do the needed work on their own. After all, the EPA doesn't monitor Joe Toolkit in his very own home, which means he can take, or not take, any safety precautions he likes. That said, it's wise to bear the agency's recommendations in mind. Above all, don't set a sandblaster above the lowest power level when dealing with lead paint, and seal vents, drains, and faucets to keep dust from traveling throughout the house. Certification requires an application form and a $300 fee. It also involves eight hours of training for workers, a quarter of which are hands-on. The EPA has the power to approve instructors, some of whom own contracting companies themselves, and the instructors set their own rates. See our blog post on EPA Lead certification. There are presently hundreds of accredited trainers in the U.S. They teach workers how to produce as little lead dust as possible, effectively contain a work area, and clean up in a way that minimizes risk. Preparing before a project and communicating safety issues are also on the curriculum, which is available in both English and Spanish. A newly certified company doesn't need to renew for five years. Companies still in need of certification can learn more about the process at http://www.epa.gov/opptintr/lead/pubs/lscp-renovation.htm. The program doesn't cover projects that disturb less than 6 square feet of paint inside a building, or 20 square feet outside. States and tribes may develop their own, equivalent lead-safe policies, but they remain under the EPA's supervision. If you've hired a contractor, the new program affords you several rights. First, you're entitled to a copy of the company's certification and the EPA's pamphlet on lead hazards. Second, you may a request a detailed explanation of the lead-safe methods that your project will entail. Last but not least, you can expect a certified firm to provide three references regarding prior work on pre-1978 buildings. Uncertified contractors risk jail time and/or formidable fines ($37,500 per violation per day isn't unheard of). If you want to learn more about the certification program, dial 800-424-LEAD. Finding a certified firm near you is easy; just visit http://cfpub.epa.gov/flpp/searchrrp_firm.htm. Lead paint can be a monster, but a bit of foresight and conscientiousness will almost certainly tame it. Both contractors and their clients have roles to play in ensuring that the Lead-Safe Certification Program accomplishes its goals. Companies that do RRP work should maintain their certification, and the public should insist on certified firms when seeking renovation, repair, or painting. By following the EPA's guidelines for house painting everyone wins and exterior painting is conducted with occupancy safety in mind.