Renovating an old house is always stressful. On April 22, it is likely to get even worse.
On that day new regulations from the Environmental Protection Agency will go into effect. The regulations will affect all contractors and landlords who work on houses, apartments, schools or day care centers that were built before 1978, when paints containing lead were banned from such applications in the United States.
The new rules require that contractors and landlords be EPA-certified and that they follow specified procedures whenever there is a risk that dust from lead-based paint may be released. An employee who has undergone lead safety training must be present on the job site at the start and completion of any project that could release lead-contaminated dust.
With less than a month left before the regulations take effect, not many contractors have received the necessary certification. As of the end of February fewer than 7,000 of the 200,000 individuals the EPA estimates will need the training had received it. By the middle of this month, there were still only 146 companies licensed to provide the required training. One contractor, who had managed to register himself and his employees for an April 3 session, told the Oneonta, N.Y., Daily Star, “The classes are very limited between now and April 22.” Other contractors still remain unaware of the impending deadline.
If the regulations go into effect as scheduled while the supply of certified contractors is limited, the consequences could be dramatic. Approximately 68 percent of houses in the U.S. were built before 1978 and would therefore be subject to the new rules. A wide range of work could be affected by the regulations, since pretty much anything that involves slicing into a wall could potentially produce paint dust. The rules apply to any work that disturbs more than six square feet of a building’s interior.
The penalties for noncompliance with the new measures are steep, with criminal penalties for willful noncompliance even including the possibility of up to a year of jail time. Civil penalties could be as high as $25,000 per day of noncompliance. Given the wide scope of the rules and their draconian penalties, the regulations could bring renovations to a near-standstill across the nation.
Even if the EPA gives in to pressure from industry groups and delays the implementation of the rules, the regulations will still result in large increases in costs in return for minimal benefits. The original rules proposed by the agency in 2008 included an opt-out provision, allowing homeowners to forego the new procedures, so long as there were no children under 6 years old or pregnant women residing in the house. However, the opt-out provision was dropped from the final rules to settle a challenge from groups claiming public health was not adequately protected.
Not that the tougher regime seems to add much in the way of protection. A study in New York found that renovation, repair and painting activities were a probable source of lead exposure in only 14 percent of 972 children with elevated blood lead levels. Blood lead levels tend to be highest for children in low-income households where disrepair is more likely to be the culprit than is renovation. When old lead paint is allowed to chip and crack, young children may consume the paint flakes, which have a sweet taste.
Even without the new rules, lead poisoning has been on the decline for many years thanks to the decades-old ban. A study conducted between 1999 and 2002 found that only 0.7 percent of the U.S. population had blood lead levels high enough to constitute a significant health risk, compared to 2.2 percent in 1991 to 1994. If only a small number of Americans face lead poisoning, and only a fraction of those are exposed to lead dust through home improvement projects, does it make sense to drive up the cost of every home renovation in the nation - even in homes that have no children, or which are unoccupied altogether?
While they are still hoping for a reprieve, contractors are not counting on the EPA to push back the effective date. Jim Lett, president of A.B.E. Door & Windows in Allentown, Pa. told Window & Door magazine, “We have purchased the necessary equipment - HEPA vacuums, protective plastic, warning tape, cones, signs, etc.”
Homeowners should brace themselves as well. With all the caution tape and orange cones that contractors are buying, putting in a new kitchen will now mean making your home look like the site of an asbestos-removal project. By some estimates, the rules could add 10 percent to the price of most major renovation projects.
Somewhere in America, there may be a child who will somehow be protected by the new EPA regulations. It is also not a bad thing to reduce exposure to lead paint dust for the workers who renovate our houses. The new regulations might make sense when viewed in isolation. But the money we will spend to satisfy EPA paint enforcers could buy a lot more public health if we spent it doing something else.