New Lead Paint Rules Will Add To Renovation Expense

The Record ( — Sunday, February 28, 2010

The Record

Thinking about a new bathroom for your home? How about replacing that old siding? Perhaps new windows?

If you've got a pre-1978 home and have young children, contractors say you soon could be paying more for the job — maybe much more. The reason? A new set of federal rules designed to minimize the hazards of lead paint dust raised during renovation projects.

The Environmental Protection Agency rules, which go into effect April 22, will change the way contractors handle most renovation projects in homes with children under age 6 or pregnant women. Local contractors say they understand the hazards of lead paint dust but worry about a wide range of fallout from the rules.

"This is going to impact the remodeling and construction industry so much it's not even funny," said Greg DiBernardo, who owns Fine Home Improvements, based in Waldwick.

The rules will require contractors who work in homes (also child-care facilities, schools and day-care centers) to be trained in lead-safe renovation practices. They also must follow strict guidelines for demolition and cleanup to prevent lead paint dust from spreading.

Lead was banned as an ingredient in paint in 1978, but renovation can disturb old layers of paint in homes. Children can ingest the lead paint dust after it lands on toys or the floor. Lead poisoning is particularly dangerous to young children and has been linked to seizures, learning disabilities and behavioral problems.

The EPA said that amounts above 40 micrograms of lead dust per square foot — the equivalent of a few grains of sand — can have adverse effects.

"Lead is extremely toxic at very low doses, particularly to young children," said Maria Doa, director of the national program, chemicals division, with the EPA. The agency estimates that the new regulations will add $35 to an average job.

That estimate makes contractor Dan Gehrig laugh out loud.

"That's absolutely insane," said Gehrig, who owns Creative Design Construction in Northvale.

Take that siding job. Before, a contractor might simply rip down siding and take loads of debris in garbage cans from the work site to a Dumpster rented for construction debris, DiBernardo said. New regulations would require workers to wear protective suits made of Tyvek, put down 20 feet of plastic sheeting on the ground around the home, keep a wall wet while working, put each load of siding into plastic bags and seal them before depositing the bags into a Dumpster, he said.

"You're talking about at least a few thousand dollars extra," said DiBernardo.

Gehrig estimated the extra labor might add 25 percent to a siding job.

In a typical bathroom tear-down, DiBernardo said, workers would demolish the old bathroom, taking debris out through the house in bins to a Dumpster. The new rules require that the bathroom area be taped off with plastic sheeting and that workers inside not leave the "dirty" area before decontaminating themselves. Debris would be bagged and sealed before it could be removed from the "dirty zone."

DiBernardo estimated that a typical demolition portion of a bathroom job might go from $800 to $1,200.

The EPA is still considering whether to require contractors to follow the lead-safe renovation rules for all homes. That change would more than double the number of homes where the rules would apply, from 37 million nationwide to 77 million, according to the National Association of Home Builders.

Because of that possible change, DiBernardo is advising all of his clients about the new EPA regulations. He recently explained to a client with children over the age limit that they might be affected.

That client, Srabani Lal, said she's planning to ask DiBernardo to do an exterior paint job on her Ridgewood home before the April 22 deadline, just in case. Originally, she had planned on having the job done in the summer.

"The regulations make sense," Lal said. "But it is an outdoor project. I would not let them [the children] out when people were working. I feel I could take the necessary precautions."

DiBernardo said he envisions unscrupulous contractors will try to undercut bids by not following the rules. Customers who don't know about the rules might shun the contractor following the law. Or, he said, homeowners might attempt jobs themselves, creating even more risk for lead paint dust poisoning.

Clifton contractor Steve Christopher said he worries about cases where a legitimate contractor might turn down a job because the new regulations make it too costly to be worth his time.

Gehrig said he's concerned about liability. Say he follows the EPA rules perfectly but a child in a home where he worked develops lead poisoning, perhaps due to exposure elsewhere. Can he be held responsible?

"I'm afraid it's going to stir up a can of worms," he said. "You want to do the right thing and protect kids, but we can't open ourselves up to liability, too."

There are methods to test for layers of lead paint on a wall or surface, said Gehrig. If the tests show an absence of lead, the new EPA rules would not apply. One involves test sticks swiped on a surface, a test that can be done by the contractor. Another involves using a machine that detects lead through radar, a test that would be done by an outside testing agency.

But the difficulty is that the tests can be costly, and if lead is discovered, the homeowner would have to pay for testing and the additional labor the new rules require, Gehrig said.

"The homeowner has to weigh the situation to find the best solution," he said.

Another concern raised by several contractors was enforcement. Violating the rules calls for fines of up to $37,500 per day. DiBernardo said without strict enforcement, shady contractors might try to evade the rules, giving them an unfair advantage.

Doa said the EPA's initial focus is on getting renovators trained. Eventually, the agency expects enforcement to come from tips and complaints from homeowners themselves, she said.

So far Doa estimated that about 6,500 renovators working at 1,300 firms nationwide have taken the training. About 200,000 renovators in the U.S. do work that would fall under the rules.

New Jersey has some existing state laws that govern work done on older homes. One, for example, bans dry scraping or sanding more than 2 square feet of interior space.

"We're very glad to see these regulations go into effect," said Evelyn Liebman, director of organization and advocacy for New Jersey Citizen Action, which has lobbied for tougher lead paint laws on both state and federal levels.

"New Jersey housing stock is predominantly pre-1978, and we know there are many children at risk for lead paint poisoning."

While lead in children's toys make big headlines, Liebman said lead paint dust presents a bigger danger.

"While it may be a little more expensive for contractors to do renovation work because of these regulations, it's not nearly the value of the healthy life of a child," she said.

Allison and Scott Jackson are almost done with a renovation project on their Mahwah porch that would have fallen under the new regulations. While the porch was being renovated, she said, her contractor did put up plastic sheeting to separate the work space from their living area.

The Jacksons, who have two children age 6 and under, are now considering a project to build a staircase to access the basement, which currently can now only be entered through a garage.

"We're excited to do it but we're dreading it because it will be such a mess," Allison Jackson said. The new project would certainly be subject to the new EPA rules, and Jackson said she's not sure how much of a price increase they'd be able to handle.

"It would depend on how much more," she said. "Maybe we'd do it ourselves? Maybe we'd find another way to get into the basement? Whatever we would do, we'd do it in a way that would be safe for our family."

Minimizing danger from lead paint

The Environmental Protection Agency rules, which go into effect April 22, will change the way contractors handle most renovation projects in homes with children under age 6 or pregnant women.

Lead in New Jersey

Sources: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; state of New Jersey

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