Builders prepare for change in lead-paint rules

Mike DeDoncker

The interests of protecting children from lead poisoning and small business profit margins will collide Thursday when a 2-year-old U.S. Environmental Protection Agency policy on renovations in buildings erected before 1978 takes effect.

The EPA’s Renovation, Repair and Painting rule — issued April 22, 2008 — applies to any project affecting at least 6 square feet indoors or 20 square feet outdoors and requires contractors for projects that disturb lead-based paint in homes, child-care facilities and schools built before 1978 to be certified as having been trained in specific work practices to prevent lead contamination.

The rule also requires landlords, whether they are renovating the property themselves or hiring a contractor, to provide tenants with an EPA pamphlet about lead hazards and have the tenants sign a form acknowledging that they received the pamphlet before work begins.

Fines for noncompliance can run up to $37,500 per violation per day.

Phil King, an environmental protection specialist with the lead-based paint program in the EPA’s Region 5 office in Chicago, said in a telephone interview that the rule is based on scientific research and was established in response to a congressional mandate to protect families, and especially children, from exposure to lead in paint and lead-contaminated dust and soil. That mandate came from the Residential Lead-Based Paint Hazard Reduction Act of 1992, when it was estimated that about three-fourths of the nation’s housing stock built before 1978 — about 64 million homes — contained some lead-based paint.

“It’s going to increase the price of doing renovations,” said Dennis Sweeny, executive vice president of the Homebuilders’ Association of Rockford, Ill. “It’s going to mean more labor and more time.

“They want people to be much more conscious about putting down plastic to capture any chips or dust that might fall if you’re cutting, grinding or sanding. And, when dust is in the air, they want to make sure you’re recapturing that dust and having the other rooms sealed off. As one remodeling contract told me, even for something as basic as a window replacement — let’s say you’re replacing two small windows — the way he was looking at it to conscientiously follow all of these requirements, the labor for the replacement would cost more than the windows.”

To be certified by the EPA as a lead-safe renovator, an individual is required to pass an eight-hour course on safety procedures to prevent the spread of lead dust from projects. Procedures include such things as proper ways to lay down plastic, wrapping items to be removed from the home in plastic before carrying them through other parts of the house and sealing off parts of the house not involved in the renovation.

A company wishing to be certified could send one or more people to a class, but it was not required to send more than one. The classes cost between $100 and $300 each, depending on the certified provider, and then the company paid $300 to the EPA for a certification as a lead-safe firm good for five years.

“The first thing we have to do in the class is motivate them about compliance with the rule,” said Nicholas Peneff, owner and primary instructor at Public Health & Safety Inc. in Chicago. “I’m not the type of person who likes to scare people with fines. I would rather tell them that the latest research on lead dust has shown that it poisons kids over time in a way that directly affects their learning ability and directly affects their ability to react physically and to coordinate, and that the research indicates that renovation is the No. 1 cause for lead poisoning today.”

Sweeny said a problem for contractors seeking to comply with the rule is that standards for enforcement aren’t finalized.

King said the EPA is “in the final stages of preparing our enforcement plans, which, as with other EPA enforcement, would include response to tips and complaints, visits to work sites, and audits of compliance by companies and individuals who have been certified.”

Kristine Stensland, the Winnebago County (Ill.) Health Department’s lead programs coordinator for the past three years, said she has been fielding calls “saying the economy is horrible and you’re killing small businesses” as well as correcting misinformation about the rule’s requirements.

“Before I worked for the county, I was a small-business owner, so I know that every nickel counts when you’re in business,” Stensland said, “but what I also know is that there are just things that are a cost of doing business — licenses that you need to have, supplies you need to order and so forth. So I think there’s a lot of knee-jerk reaction about more government regulation, but the spirit of the law is not to make this a burden for people.”

Stensland said “my thing is to teach people how extremely little lead it takes to poison a child. It’s not something that children can grow out of. It basically can cause lifelong disabilities and problems.”

In addition to the fees for the certification class and EPA certification for the firm, Stensland said companies complying with the rule would be likely to have to spend additional money on such things as lead-check swabs at $1.50 to $2 apiece; a HEPA vacuum cleaner, which can cost between $250 and $1,200; and more plastic than they might now put down during a job.

The rule does not directly apply to homeowners doing work in their own houses, although the EPA encourages them to get the pamphlet laying out safe procedures and to follow them.

“Actually, the homeowner has some responsibility, too,” Sweeny said. “If you live in a pre-1978 house and you’re doing your own work, you have the added burden of trying to follow these rules because once you start doing this stuff, what’s the next thing they’re going to want — some type of certification that it was done this way when you go to sell your house.”

Rockford Register Star staff writer Mike DeDoncker can be reached at 815-987-1382 or

Lead-safe certification rule

What: A U.S. Environmental Protection Agency policy requiring use of lead-safe practices in renovation, repair and painting projects that disturb lead-based paint in homes, child-care facilities and schools built before 1978 and that contractors doing that work have been trained and certified in the safe practices.

When: The policy was adopted April 22, 2008, and goes into effect Thursday. It also applies to work started before but not completed by Thursday.