First came the reams of blue tarp and plastic sheeting that stretched around the foundation of the house. Then there were the workers, clad in white suits and breathing through respirators. But it was the yellow "Caution" tape that encircled the property that made passersby not just stare, but question their safety.
“Our house looked like a crime scene,” says Micki Jacobsen, 55, of Williamsburg, Va. “We live in a very residential area where a lot of locals walk, and people would just stop and stare. Some talked to me and to the workers to find out what was going on.”
Had some heinous crime occurred? A chemical leak? Was it asbestos? None of the above. Jacobsen was simply having her house painted. But because the old paint contained lead, the contractors had to make sure that not a single fleck of paint or speck of dust escaped their plastic web.
As of April 22, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Lead-Based Paint Renovation, Repair and Painting (RRP) rule requires that all contractors working on homes built before 1978 must be trained and certified in safe lead-removal practices. Contractors working on indoor areas where more than 6 square feet of lead paint is disturbed (more than 20 square feet outside) must contain the work area with plastic, minimize the creation of dust (often by scraping instead of sanding) and clean up thoroughly.
“The amount of work that had to be done and all those painters went through was surprising,” says Jacobsen, who runs Mulberry Garden Manor, a bed-and-breakfast, out of her home. “They even walked the property every day to see if they missed a piece [of paint]. They picked up everything, even if it looked like just a little scraping.”
Why all the fuss about lead paint? Because lead is still a health hazard, specifically for children and pregnant women. There is also mounting evidence that it can affect the health of the rest of us, especially older adults who have spent more time accumulating lead in their bodies, particularly before the 1980s when the public became aware of the metal’s hazards.
The dangers of lead
In 1975, a groundbreaking study in the New England Journal of Medicine concluded that lead exposure caused low IQ, hyperactivity and behavioral problems in children. Three years later, the Consumer Product Safety Commission banned lead paint for residential use. Since then, rates of lead poisoning in children have fallen substantially, but lead is still a significant public health risk. There were 31,524 new cases of lead poisoning in the United States in 2007, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and more than 1 million children currently suffer the ill-effects of lead exposure.
Lead is a highly destructive toxin that can cause irreversible brain damage in children, says John Rosen, M.D., head of the Lead Poisoning Prevention Program at the Children’s Hospital at Montefiore in New York. The risk is greatest in children under age 6, mostly because they still engage in lots of hand-to-mouth activity. Think of babies crawling on dusty floors, and then sucking on their thumbs. Ingestion is the leading route of lead exposure, and babies’ bodies absorb more of the lead than the bodies of adults.