Lead safety is something that most homeowners don’t think about anymore, since lead used in the manufacture of house paints was prohibited by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in 1978. But plenty of home buyers are opting for older homes in established neighborhoods, which means that lead paint and the serious health hazards it poses remain a critical issue for home buyers today.
Home buyers with their eye on a vintage property are usually won over by the home’s character and charm, including many prized architectural details that just don’t have the same appeal when replicated McMansion-style. Even formerly down-market styles of older architecture are experiencing renewed interest for their distinctive aesthetics and solid framework. Depending on their location, these older homes may be more affordable than new construction, or simply more desirable in spite of their price tag. Either way, these homes tend to be considerably smaller, averaging just 1,400 square feet for a home built in 1970, before the lead rules were enacted. Homes built in the 1950s were smaller still, averaging around 1,000 square feet. And that’s just not big enough for the typical American family today.
Home buyers looking to invest in a classic bungalow or a modest ranch usually come to the deal with renovation plans that include many modern upgrades, including enlarging doorways and installing tighter windows, and perhaps knocking down a few plaster walls to expand the square footage of individual rooms before building additions. Such work is the domain of construction professionals skilled in renovation and restoration, but how many of them are actually Lead-Safe Certified, as required by the EPA?
New Federal Mandate
In April 2010, the EPA issued a federal requirement stating that anyone performing renovation, repair and painting (or RRP) projects that disturb lead-based paint in pre-1978 homes, childcare facilities and schools be Lead-Safe Certified. This certification is aimed at ensuring that such work is performed up to specific standards so that the health and safety of current and future occupants are protected by Certified Renovators and Certified Firms.
This federal mandate covers all contractors, renovators, electricians, HVAC specialists, plumbers, painters, handymen and maintenance staff who disrupt more than 6 interior square feet or 20 exterior square feet of lead paint in pre-1978 homes, schools, daycare centers and other places where children spend time.
This new rule protects not only the homeowners/occupants, but also the contractors and their employees performing renovation work -- because no one is immune to the health hazards of lead exposure.
Ambition vs. Ability
While the EPA’s new lead rules are laudable, the American Architectural Manufacturers Association (AAMA) recently questioned the EPA’s ability to properly monitor compliance activity on the 7.2 million renovation projects it predicts will take place during the first year of implementation, and the estimated 5.4 million subsequent positive test results from lead-testing kits that will trigger remediation measures.
According to 2007 government statistics, there were more than 7 million employees in the construction and remodeling industries in the U.S., but as of April 21, 2011, only 637,400 (or roughly 8%) of those people have been trained to use lead-safe work practices. Many contractors seem to believe that the EPA lacks the capability to enforce the Lead-Safe Certified Renovator RRP Rule.
The EPA is demonstrating good faith in protecting the public welfare by identifying a serious health threat and instituting necessary safety and training standards. But when more than 90% of those required by law to have RRP lead-safe training don't, the AAMA may have a valid point.
The Dangers of Lead: A Review
Hardly a problem whose domain is Third World regions that have substandard construction or inspection practices, the health hazards caused by heavy-metal contamination in the U.S. cannot be underestimated, so it’s worth reviewing what those hazards are as they pertain to lead.
While public service announcements of 30 years ago depicted unsupervised children nibbling away at paint peeling off of rundown walls and gumming window sills, there are much more insidious means by which anyone can become exposed to levels of lead that are high and sustained enough to impair one's health long-term. Merely breathing in or swallowing lead dust can result in health problems, and some of them can be quite severe in vulnerable individuals.
Young children are at particular risk to lead exposure because:
- Lead exposure can harm babies in utero.
- Children's growing bodies can absorb more lead more quickly than adults’ bodies.
- Lead can be ingested by eating soil or paint chips containing lead.
- Lead dust is also a danger that is not as readily discovered by even the most vigilant caregivers. Babies and young children tend to mouth toys and other items as part of their natural learning process, and if they have access to items that have been exposed to lead dust, the dust can be rapidly absorbed into their bodies.
- Even children who seem healthy can have high levels of lead in their bodies. By the time exposure has been properly diagnosed, neurological damage may be irreversible.
- chronic headaches;
- speech delays;
- slowed growth;
- learning disabilities;
- behavioral issues, such as hyperactivity and symptoms related to attention-deficit disorders;
- hearing problems;
- damage to the central nervous system; and
- brain damage.
- memory and concentration problems;
- chronic headaches;
- high blood pressure;
- digestive problems;
- nerve disorders;
- muscle and joint pain;
- difficulties during pregnancy; and
- reproductive problems in both men and women.
What is Lead-Safe Certified?
To become Lead-Safe Certified, individuals are required to:
- submit an application and fee to the EPA; and
- take eight hours of training (of which two hours must be hands-on) from an EPA-approved training provider. InterNACHI is an EPA-approved training provider, and InterNACHI's Lead Safety for Renovation, Repair and Painting course is EPA-approved. The certification is valid for five years.
The EPA rule requires that any contractors who work or even offer to work on pre-1978 homes for compensation must be Certified Renovators and/or Certified Firms. If they disturb painted surfaces of at least 6 square feet per room on the interior or 20 square feet on the exterior, they must use RRP practices. Contractors who violate this law face a fine of $37,500 per violation, per day.
Some contractors and even inspectors may wonder whether ignoring lead-safety compliance is a risk worth taking, given the perceived likelihood of escaping the EPA's notice if their infractions go unreported. Setting aside the potentially serious health hazards for the moment, consider the following.
The EPA reported in March 2011 that Window World of St. Louis, Inc., a window replacement company located in St. Louis, Mo., agreed to a fine of nearly $20,000 after the EPA was informed that the company had failed to notify the owners and residents of a property, prior to beginning their renovation work, with standard-language, EPA-approved pamphlets that provide residents with information regarding the hazards of lead-based paint. Such notification is also a requirement of the Residential Lead-Based Paint Hazard Reduction Act, which Congress passed in 1992 as an amendment to the federal Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA).
In another incident that occurred in May 2011, a landlord in Springfield, Mass., was fined $6,000 for failing to disclose information to the tenants in his 99-unit property regarding the potential presence of lead-based paint. Although this episode did not affect any contractors, it highlights the seriousness with which the EPA takes its lead-safety rules for the benefit of home dwellers who may be exposed to lead-based paint.
The simple step of distributing pamphlets cost companies profit, reputation, and a valuable lesson. How many more companies have failed in even this basic required action of notification but have gone undetected, and their fines uncollected?
Mark Paskell blogs for the website "The Contractor Coaching Partnership," which serves the residential construction industry. He recently discovered that some insurance carriers in the state of New York are requiring their contractor-policyholders to become Lead-Safe Certified, according to EPA guidelines, or risk losing their coverage. Mr. Paskell also discussed the concerns of some construction firms who fear that undergoing the proper training for RRP lead-safety certification will suddenly put them on the EPA's radar, making them an easy target for fines for non-compliance by an agency already stretched to its limits for manpower.
In answer to these anxieties, Mr. Paskell simply states, "The safest way for contractors to proceed is to get on board and become EPA/RRP-certified and certify your firm. We have seen Lowes® and Home Depot® require certification for all their sub[-contractors]s. We are learning from New York contractors that property management firms are looking for the certification. Many of the general contractors we have trained are telling their sub-contractors to get certified or they will replace them. Now that insurance companies are looking for the certification, it will be harder for those who have not signed up for RRP training and certification to get jobs."
Indeed, as InterNACHI inspectors can learn, certification is easier than it seems.
The real question is: How can the EPA put some teeth into their lead safety rules and guard the health and welfare of its most at-risk citizens, as well as those whose incidental exposure to lead during the remodeling process can result in unintended consequences, without further burdening a governmental system that’s already short on budget and personnel?
InterNACHI has recently begun talks with the EPA to integrate the agency’s need for compliance monitoring during lead-based RRP activities, and the InterNACHI inspector’s established role of performing inspections for home buyers, as well as conducting inspections during and after home and commercial property renovations.
InterNACHI’s Director of Education Ben Gromicko considers this a common-sense and natural partnership, as well as one that builds on their mutual association with the U.S. Department of Energy, whose Home Energy Scoring Program is another endeavor that InterNACHI is helping to pilot, which seeks to protect homeowners and their greatest investment, as well as the environment.
As the recognized leader in residential and commercial inspector training and education, InterNACHI has also achieved the status of an EPA-approved Lead-Safe Certification training provider, offering its Lead Safety for Renovation, Repair and Painting course, which has been approved by the EPA and complies with both the EPA’s lead rules and the U.S. Housing and Urban Development’s Lead-Safe Housing Rule. As an adjunct to the online tutorial, which is open to all InterNACHI members and to contractors seeking Lead-Safe Certification, Mr. Gromicko has begun holding Saturday workshops at InterNACHI’s Boulder, Colo., headquarters to provide participants with the EPA's required hands-on training in order for them to understand the specific compliance activities that must be practiced by Lead-Safe Certified contractors. The EPA has imposed numerous specific techniques that must be undertaken by contractors before, during and after working around lead paint that is disturbed during renovation, and InterNACHI’s course takes the students through all of a project’s phases so that they can gain a thorough understanding of compliance under the lead rules.
Mr. Gromicko is convinced that “inspectors can play a vital role in assisting the EPA in its task to enforce compliance.”
InterNACHI blankets the country with more than 7,000 certified property inspectors in the U.S. alone. Properly trained inspectors can act as observers, proficient in the oversight of the lead-safe work practices that must be utilized by contractors. Under this proposal, contractors can avoid improper or incomplete lead-safety practices while protecting their own employees, and homeowners and occupants can be assured that all federally mandated precautions are being exercised to ensure their health and safety; finally, InterNACHI inspectors can contribute to the enforcement of the EPA’s rules and protocols that they have been trained to understand and oversee. According to Mr. Gromicko, the EPA agrees that this is a "win-win-win scenario."
Implementing the Partnership
The partnership between the EPA and InterNACHI starts with the relationship between InterNACHI inspectors and their homeowner-clients who are planning renovations to their older properties. They can all take some easy measures to ensure that the contractors they hire are Lead-Safe Certified.
First, the homeowner hires the contractor, then schedules and pays for an InterNACHI inspector to oversee the contractor’s work practices. The inspector’s role is to observe, document and report back to the EPA any compliance issues observed at the renovation work site. The EPA has developed an inspection checklist specifically for this task (see below).
How Can InterNACHI Inspectors Participate?
- Get trained. Take InterNACHI’s online "Lead-Safe Work Practices" video course athttp://www.nachi.org/lead-safe-practices-online-course.htm.
- Educate your clients. About 10,000 times every day, InterNACHI-certified inspectors all over the U.S. sit at the breakfast table with new home buyers who are eager to start renovation projects. Inspectors can educate home buyers, home sellers, and their real estate agents about the new federal law that protects not only small children and other residents, but also the contractors who perform the work, as well as our environment.
- Keep informed. Read the latest news releases by the EPA at the EPA Newsroom.
- Learn more about the EPA's guidelines by reading the EPA Lead-Safe Certification Program Fact Sheet (see below).
- Contact the EPA directly and let them know that you, as an InterNACHI inspector, are willing to be called upon to help educate the American homeowner-consumer about lead-safe practices. Contact EPA Enforcement and Compliance Office.