After a decade of delays and facing a congressional goal to eliminate childhood lead poisoning by 2010, the Environmental Protection Agency is on the verge of adopting a hotly contested rule that tackles one of the last major dangers still posed by lead: the poisonous dust stirred up by remodeling.
Although lead paint was banned nearly 30 years ago, homeowners and their contractors can unwittingly create an invisible hazard for millions of children when they renovate their homes and unleash the potent, brain-damaging poison.
Now, the EPA has proposed a regulation that would require training and certification of contractors and prescribe lead-safe work practices in pre-1978 houses inhabited by children under age 6.
The cost of home renovations would rise by an estimated $500 million per year most of which would be passed on to property owners while saving up to $5 billion a year in children's health and education costs, according to the EPA's economic analysis.
About 38 million homes, 40% of the nation's housing contain lead-based paint, and most of them are in middle-class and even affluent neighborhoods.
Because lead has already been removed in many low-income housing projects through a federal program, much of the remaining threat lies in suburbs, where homes are being remodeled. When walls and windowsills of houses built before 1978 are sanded, scraped, torched, demolished, sawed or drilled, the lead in old paint is unleashed.
In Los Angeles County, about 80% of homes including mansions in Beverly Hills, bungalows in Pasadena and World War II-era apartments in Lynwood were built when paint contained lead, and every year, about 1,200 children under 6 are diagnosed with elevated lead levels.
"Our goal is to eliminate lead poisoning. One lead-poisoned child is too many," said Wendy Cleland-Hamnett, deputy director of the EPA's Office of Pollution Prevention and Toxics.
Nationally, about 310,000 children between the ages of 1 and 5 have blood lead levels greater than the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's safety guideline. As a result, they are likely to wind up with reading and math problems and attention disorders.
Under the EPA's proposal, hundreds of thousands of people in construction trades would undergo at least eight hours of training in lead-safe practices.
In pre-1978 owner-occupied houses inhabited by a child under 6 and all pre-1978 rental housing, anyone doing renovation or repairs for compensation would have to follow special steps for containing and cleaning up dust, including posting warning signs, isolating the work area from the rest of the house with heavy plastic barriers and removing debris daily.
After cleanup with high-performance vacuums and wet mops, workers would have to conduct a "white glove" test by wiping floors and windowsills with cloths to check for dust. When an area passes, it can be reoccupied.
The requirements would apply to nearly all renovations, including paint removal, demolition, window replacement and heating ductwork repairs. Homeowners doing the work themselves would be exempt.
The building industry has strongly opposed the regulations, saying they would drive up costs and perhaps even backfire, creating more lead poisoning by prompting more people to do the work themselves or hire unlicensed workers.
On the other hand, pediatricians and health officials say the proposal gives contractors too many dangerous loopholes and permits unsafe work practices, such as sandblasting.
The EPA is now weighing the concerns of both sides and is expected to adopt a rule later this year. Requirements for pre-1960 homes could begin in 2008 and, for those built between 1960 and 1977, one year later.
With 11 million renovations each year in U.S. homes likely to contain lead paint, a mandate with such sweeping economic effects runs counter to the Bush administration's philosophy of handling environmental problems with voluntary efforts and market forces.
The EPA initially considered voluntary measures, "but we made the decision that regulation was needed," Cleland-Hamnett said. "There are people out there who are following lead-safe work practices, but we don't think it's a general practice among the industry."
"We worked very hard to make the practices we would be requiring simple and relatively easy to follow, minimizing the costs while still trying to be protective of the children in the residence," she said.
Public health officials and doctors including the American Academy of Pediatricians, the California Department of Health Services and scientists researching lead have urged the EPA to tighten the proposed requirements. They say exempting houses with no children under 6 would endanger millions of older children and fetuses.
"A house that is exempt today because it is not occupied by a child younger than 6 may contain a susceptible child tomorrow," said Dr. Bruce Lanphear, a professor of pediatrics and environmental health director at the Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center in Ohio and the nation's leading expert on the effects of childhood lead exposure.
Although infants and toddlers are more vulnerable to lead, new studies have shown that lead harms the brains of older children too.
"A conservative interpretation of the studies would suggest that we shouldn't be ignoring exposures that occur after the age of 6," added Dr. David Bellinger, a Harvard Medical School professor of neurology.
Also, other new research suggests that there is no safe level of exposure. Reading and math skills decline at levels as low as 2.5 micrograms per deciliter, near the national average of 2. A child loses 6.2 IQ points,7% of his or her intelligence, when blood lead increases from near zero to 10 micrograms per deciliter, the federal government's health guideline, according to research by Lanphear published last year.
Andrew Jackson Holliday, regulatory counsel for the National Assn. of Home Builders, said the EPA's strategy "won't work. It increases the price differential between legitimate remodelers and gray-market ones. That doesn't help any children, that presents more children with a risk of being exposed to dust."
Costs would rise by an estimated $22 to $63 for a bathroom remodel, by up to $181 for an exterior paint job and by as much as $527 for major ductwork, according to the EPA. The National Assn. of the Remodeling Industry, however, estimates that costs of remodeling jobs would jump much higher, by 28%, largely if contractors purchase new insurance.
Long Beach contractor Joe Zieba, who renovates many 1920s houses, said liability is his main worry.
"If people find lead anywhere in the house, they will point the finger at us. As soon as this policy is in effect, insurance companies will catch on and our insurance will go crazy," he said.
Builders have advocated voluntary measures for contractors and education for homeowners.
"We're not trying to pretend this is harmless stuff," Holliday said. "But you're regulating the people who are already well qualified."
However, a study by EPA contractors found that children in homes where remodeling occurred in the previous year were 30% more likely to have elevated lead levels. In other research, the agency found that "considerable amounts of lead, well over" safety guidelines "scatters and settles over a widespread area" during paint removal, demolition, sawing and ductwork projects.
Lourdes Rivera remembers finding such a mess after licensed workers painted the exterior of her century-old Craftsman home in the Angelino Heights neighborhood of Los Angeles. So a few years later, while pregnant and remodeling for a nursery, Rivera was determined to do things safely. But when she called painters and described lead-safe work practices, they wouldn't take the job.
"Here I am, a savvy person, educated, a lawyer, comfortably middle class and I couldn't find a contractor who knew anything about lead-safe practices. They were really resistant to the idea. They didn't even know what I was talking about," said Rivera, who works for a nonprofit law firm.
Finally, Rivera's husband, Robert Winn, a documentary filmmaker, decided to do the work himself. Trained by the Los Angeles-based Healthy Homes Collaborative, he avoided sanding, instead coating walls with a sealant and using a chemical paint remover on windowsills. Afterward, samples sent to a lab found no lead dust, and their daughter, Amelia, now 3, has no detectable lead in her blood.
One of the most contentious aspects of the proposal is its failure to prohibit activities, including machine sanding, sandblasting, high-temperature heat guns and torching — that are known to stir up large amounts of lead dust and are already prohibited by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development in federally assisted low-income housing.
Rebecca Morley of the National Center for Healthy Housing said the EPA plan "will allow dangerous and unnecessary methods that are widely known to do much more harm than good."
Safer alternatives exist, such as sanders equipped with filters and low-heat strippers, she said.
Another controversy is how contractors will verify that houses are clean. Some lead experts say lab tests, which cost more and can delay a project's completion, are more reliable than the EPA's subjective white glove test.
Particularly in old cities like San Francisco, where more than 90% of the housing predates the lead ban, the regulation could drive more workers underground without licensing and inspections. Enforcement would be left to cities and states.
"Every day there are hundreds, maybe thousands, of people disturbing lead-based paint in apartments and houses in San Francisco," rental property owner Tim Carrico said at an EPA hearing in April. "A few are contractors professional enough to be able to deal with the certification, record keeping and all of this stuff. The vast majority are not going to be able to do that."
But Rivera welcomes the regulations, saying that otherwise "you're left with homeowners trying to negotiate with contractors. Anyone who has done that knows there's only so much you can push.
"My advice is don't do renovations until you get a contractor who knows how to do it properly," she said. "Lead poisoning in this scenario is 100% preventable. There's no excuse for it."