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.
But children aren’t the only ones at risk. Adults, and women in particular, need to limit their exposure to lead, which can be inhaled as well as ingested. “When lead is absorbed by a 20-year-old woman, most of it will be stored in bone and hard skeleton,” says Rosen. “When that woman becomes pregnant, during the last trimester the skeleton is going full speed to get calcium to developing fetal skeleton. Lead leaves bone and gets into the bloodstream, where it can affect the fetus.”
If you have grandchildren or family members of childbearing age around, you definitely want to ensure that lead is not being released in your home. But in truth, no one is immune. Lead exposure has also been linked to high blood pressure, nerve disorders, memory problems and muscle and joint pain in adults. “The dangers of home renovation span all living humans,” says Rosen.
A 2006 study found that older adults exposed to high levels of lead before the 1980s showed signs of poorer cognitive performance on tests—the equivalent of two to six years of aging.
And not just humans—pets too. “If the house is being remodeled, there could be a lot of lead particles in the environment,” says Safdar Khan, director of toxicology at the ASPCA. “If pets are there, they can breathe those in. And it can get on fur, and cats groom themselves quite a bit.”
In animals, lead exposure can cause seizures, convulsions, anemia, dementia and behavioral changes, as well as vomiting and diarrhea.
“Studies have shown a positive correlation between high lead level in pets and in their owners,” says Khan. “So if you do have high lead levels in pets, chances are likely that the owner might also have it.”
While lead is no longer used in residential paint, and has been removed from gasoline, one practice is still a leading cause of lead poisoning in children: home renovation. A 2009 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report concluded that children living in homes built before 1978 while renovation occurred should be considered at high risk for lead poisoning.
“That’s why home improvement by an amateur is so, so dangerous,” Rosen says. “Everybody living in that household is inescapably at danger for developing lead poisoning.”
What lead paint means for contractors
The EPA’s new lead paint rule requires that any contractor who works on residential properties—as well as all rental property owners and managers—must take an eight-hour course in safe lead practices. Painters, plumbers, carpenters and electricians—anyone who disturbs a lead-painted area—must keep dust and debris to a minimum and clean up any dust or chips before leaving the work site. It does create more prep work and labor for the contractor, says Jeff Haas, owner of CertaPro Painters in Newport News, Va., who did the work on Jacobsen’s home.
“You can’t create any airborne lead paint, so there is no sanding, only scraping,” Haas says. “You have to make sure all the windows and doors are shut, and we have to seal the windows where we’re working. Plus you want to make sure there are no children or pets playing around. That’s why we put the yellow ‘Caution’ tape up. At the end of each day, we remove the paint chips and dispose of them as regular household waste.”
Inside the home, workers must put a minimum of 6 feet of plastic down in every direction of the work area. Air vents must be sealed up. Any dust created is wetted and then mopped up, so it does not become airborne.
The personal protective gear worn by Haas’ crew is not required by the EPA, but it is recommended. Gene Burch, principal of RTK Environmental Group in Stamford, Conn., conducts EPA training sessions. When he tells his classes about cases where contractors, covered with dust from the day’s work, have gone home and actually poisoned their own children, they understand why the white suits and respirators are worthwhile.
“I’ve actually had a lot of contractors in our classes, and when we start telling them the symptoms of lead poisoning—the headaches, the nausea, they say, ‘Gee I had this,’ ” says Burch. “Even when I was a painting contractor, I used to have headaches pretty much every day of the week. It took four or five years after I got out of the business for my headaches to start going away. You know back then I was dealing with paint the wrong way.”
And if that’s not enough incentive for contractors to get certified, there’s this: They can lose their license and be subject to fines up to $25,000 per violation and a prison sentence for noncompliance.
What the rule means for homeowners
The extra efforts required by the RRP rule will add to the cost of your project. On Jacobsen’s house, the extra prep work added $1,200 to the cost, an 18 percent increase, Haas says. Those numbers might make you consider doing the work yourself. Legally, the RRP rule applies only to contractors. But experts strongly advise against untrained homeowners doing any work that disturbs lead-based paint.
“I would not encourage any homeowner to deal with lead paint,” says David Merrick of the National Association of the Remodeling Industry. “I know that homeowners are excluded from it, but lead paint is a serious health risk, and it ought to be handled by an EPA-certified person. If you do have young kids around, do you really want to risk their mental well-being? The damage that you can do is irreversible.”
To find out whether you need a contractor, you’ll need to know how much lead paint is in your house, and where. Lead paint is glossy and mostly found on trim, especially on windows. Nearly 90 percent of homes built before 1940 are believed to have lead paint, according to the EPA. That number drops to 69 percent in homes built between 1940 and 1960, and 24 percent in homes built between 1960 and 1978.
“Anyone that lives in an older home really ought to have their house tested from one end to the other so that they know where lead paint is and don’t disturb it by accident,” says Merrick. This can be done with test kits available at your local home improvement store, but Merrick says that their accuracy is questionable. The most trustworthy tool is an XRF (x-ray fluorescence) device that will tell you the exact percentage of lead paint throughout your home. A whole house test can cost about $500, Merrick says.
If you decide to hire a contractor, ask whether he is RRP certified. Or search for a contractor through the EPA certification website. Although contractors were required to complete their certification by April 22, many still have not, says Merrick. This can be due in part to the difficulty in finding RRP classes in certain parts of the country. For example, Florida has more than 100 training providers, whereas Iowa has fewer than 10.
If you insist on doing a renovation project yourself, Merrick advises not doing any work when children are present, and making sure you clean up thoroughly before they are allowed to enter the home again. Prep work should be done with wet sanding, not dry, and you should use electric sanders with HEPA filters. Also, you’ll need to set up a containment zone around the area you are working on. “Then remember to clean up before you take down the containment area,” says Merrick. “But really the best thing to do is to take off that piece of wood or whatever it is and throw it away. It just is better to get rid of lead paint.”
Cynthia Ramanace writes about health and families from Rockaway Beach, N.Y.