Starting today, anyone renovating an older home across the country will have to hire a contractor certified to handle lead-based paint under a new federal rule that aims to reduce the number of children poisoned by the toxic metal.
The rule affects all homes built before 1978, when lead was banned in paint.
The number of children harmed by lead has dropped significantly since then, mainly because it has been banned in consumer products. But the Environmental Protection Agency, which imposed the rule, said a million children a year still suffer effects.
The agency and others have launched an awareness campaign so homeowners, as well as schools and other buildings where children are present, understand that lead is still a problem and a new rule has gone into effect.
"Lead is a dangerous, toxic substance that needs to be treated that way," said Ruth Ann Norton, executive director of the Baltimore-based National Coalition to End Childhood Lead Poisoning. "The key is to make sure homeowners are aware. When you have contractors working on your house, you need to check for certification and pay attention that there is proper cleanup."
She said lead can cling to hands and clothes and can be eaten or inhaled. It's particularly devastating to young children, causing lower IQs and behavior problems, but it also causes health problems for adults.
Past federal rules had required property owners to tell buyers and renters only about lead-based paint they knew existed. Maryland passed more stringent rules in the 1990s that also required inspection and treatment of lead-based paint in rental properties.
But this is the first time that homeowners will be subject to rules, and the National Association of Home Builders estimates it will affect 8.4 million renovation jobs annually.
And while contractors seem largely on board with the spirit of the rule, some, including those from the home builders association, are complaining that federal officials did not authorize enough trainers and not enough contractors are certified. One person per company has to pay $300 to take a daylong class.
That person has to be present at the start of a job to ensure proper procedures are followed, and at the end to conduct a swipe test for lead on surfaces. Activists are trying to add a dust test, as well.
The EPA has declined to delay implementation of the rules. According to a spokesman, Maryland had offered 179 classes and had 4,117 renovators trained as of mid-April. Nationally, the EPA expected 125,000 contractors to be certified by the date of implementation — short of the agency's original goal of 200,000.
The EPA says violations will cost contractors $37,500 per incident. Enforcement will be based solely on tips and complaints, which concerns many activists.
Property owners with no children or pregnant women living in their houses or apartments can opt out of the rule, to the chagrin of activists who are working to close that loophole.
Lead poisoning has been a particular problem in Baltimore, where the housing stock is largely older and many of the properties are rentals, some not well-maintained.
State data show that in Baltimore there were almost 500 new cases of poisoning in children age 6 and younger in 2008. Deteriorating paint and renovations are the major sources of lead exposure, according to the Maryland Department of the Environment.
Kenneth Dunn, owner of Mr. Handyman in Owings Mills, said the rule will affect every job where he has to cut at least a 6-square-foot hole in a painted wall. The extra work to comply will cost more. For example, if he's repairing a hole, the bill could go from about $138 to $300.
But still, he said, "The procedures are not overkill; it's what's needed to assure the environment is lead-free. My concern is the thousands of contractors out there who won't comply with this. People will think they got a great price. But at what cost?"