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Builders prepare for stricter rules on lead paint

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Lead paint
The lead paint flakes and cracks on the spindles of a porch on a house. The federal government will require states to enforce special safety measures when builders and remodelers deal with lead paint starting in April 2010. Lead paint has been found to be hazardous to human health, and is a particular danger to children.
Stew Milne/Associated Press

Even though lead paint has been banned since 1978, it's still a problem -- especially in older homes. Starting next spring, Minnesota builders and remodelers will have to comply with new federal guidelines for preventing lead contamination.

Crumbling a piece of plaster between his thumb and forefinger, contractor Charlie Dana points to where the paint is beginning to chip away from the outside wall of a house in St. Paul. The paint is cracking and peeling in a tell-tale vertical pattern. Eventually, the paint will chip and fall off.

"That is what old lead paint looks like, and these are the chips that people get concerned about kids eating, which isn't necessarily what happens," he said. "They are picking up dust rather than picking up chips."

Judging from the looks of the hand-tooled, square nails he uncovered while installing a new window onto the porch, Dana said he believes the house was built in the late 1800s, a fact the homeowner confirms. That means this small project is disturbing more than a century's worth of paint, much of it containing lead. 

Lead paint was used in more than 38 million homes in the United States until it was banned for residential use in 1978. 

The federal Environmental Protection Agency says contaminated chips and dust created by disturbing lead paint can cause reduced IQ, learning disabilities, development delays and behavioral problems in young children. 

So starting next April, the EPA will require contractors working on homes built before 1978, and all schools and buildings where kids spend time, to be certified and to use lead-safe practices. 

"Lead poisoning of children is a completely preventable disease."

Dana's company, JET Construction & Remodeling, handles mostly pre-1978 buildings, so the company will have to follow the new rules. 

Up on a ladder with a mask around his neck, lead carpenter Tom Harm says it's not that different from what they already do every day.  For example, when he exposed the wall studs at the beginning of the job, Harm built a containment area to keep dust from spreading.

"I had this whole area from ceiling to floor sealed in. I had my little room of plastic right here, so that all of the dust that was getting created was settling down here in this area," said Harm. "I swept it up, and then after everything settled again I swept it up and vacuumed it up." 

Starting next spring, Harms will also have to wear a special protective full-body suit and keep his work area wet and clean. 

In Roseville, instructor Rob Mathias is leading a workshop on the new EPA lead rules. 

"Work wet, work safe, work smart," he tells a group of builders. 

Mathias says the new techniques are designed to control the spread of lead dust by preventing it from getting airborne in the first place.

"Because the lead dust is really the problem, so if they can control that dust and keep the areas they are working in clean, then it will prevent lead poisoning of children," Mathias said. "Lead poisoning of children is a completely preventable disease."

If done properly, Mathias says the new rules won't add much to the cost of building projects. He says most of the expenses will be up front, because contractors will have to pay for certification, a special lead particulate vacuum and other materials. 

But that view was not popular among the builders at the workshop, including John Murphy, owner of  Murphy Bros. Designers & Remodelers in Minneapolis. He and his wife have been in business for more than two decades. 

"It will increase costs. It's just a matter of how much right now," Murphy said. 

Murphy says training his staff and putting the rules into practice will add significant labor and materials costs. He says most builders will have no choice but to pass those costs on to clients. 

"It isn't just the cost of putting down the poly," he said, pointing to a roll of plastic sheeting. "The whole compliance reporting and training is all part of that. So it's going to cost more administratively, too, which of course adds to what you have to charge to do a job profitably."

Murphy says it'll also be tough to compete with builders who don't comply with the law, because they'll be able to undercut law-abiding builders on price. 

The extra cost of dealing with lead dust could have a big impact on local governments and school districts, which are already struggling with budget cuts.

But Charlie Kyte of the Minnesota Association of School Administrators says any added cost is worth it to protect children.

"You make all kinds of trade-offs in order to build a safe building, and in the end you may have to pay thousands of dollars to get rid of some old dangerous paint," Kyte said. "On the other hand, maybe you're going to have to build the building six feet shorter and six feet narrower because you can't afford quite as big a building. Those are the trade-offs you make." 

Minnesota is in the process of finalizing how it will implement and enforce the new EPA lead rules. In the meantime, builders have the next few months to get certified.