The Lead House (Pt. 2)

Interior rooms and large areas outside were used as debris storage with limited containment. This is my son’s room. Note old window jambs and dust/debris on hardwood floors.

That Doesn’t Seem Right

It wasn’t until all the snow had melted and we were a week away from moving in that I realized something wasn’t right. I had taken a week off to clean up and do some odds and ends around the house. The first thing I did was start sweeping the “debris field” in the backyard. This was the area of our driveway and patio that the contractor kept garbage and material from the demo while the dumpster was full, gone, or being used.

The stuff I was sweeping up in the debris field. White flecks are chips of paint from trim work, large wood chunks from siding. Cigarette butts are from, well, butt heads.

There was a layer of fine sediment and large detritus: chunks of wood, glass, and most alarming, little white paint chips sprinkled everywhere. After having cleaned up a large portion of the finer debris, I thought to myself “this just doesn’t seem right, I shouldn’t be seeing all these paint chips.” So, I stopped cleaning and browsed the perimeter of the house. Sure enough, there were paint chips everywhere, yay!

Debris field on patio during demo. That’s mostly drywall on top but there’s a mix of old material too. Old window visible at right behind AC unit, chips of wood and paint visible in bottom left.

Keep in mind that this “cleanup” I was doing was a week before we were supposed to move in. There was no professional cleaning scheduled and the contractor even had a pregnant lady in the house, dry sweeping various rooms.

I immediately stopped cleaning then went home to decompress and digest the state of the project. I thought back to all the pictures we took documenting the process and I asked myself, why hadn’t any alarm bells gone off in my head then? Why did I bring my kids into the house during construction? It all seems so obvious in retrospect though we must have been so tied up with the allure of the finished product to think clearly. It felt very much like reminiscing on all the dumb things you did in high school, the really cringe worthy stuff. Blah.

Federal law requires contractors that are hired to perform renovation, repair and painting projects in homes, child care facilities, and schools built before 1978 that disturb painted surfaces to be certified and follow specific work practices to prevent lead contamination - EPA RRP Program https://www.epa.gov/sites/production/files/documents/renovaterightbrochure.pdf

EPA, Friend or Foe?

The next thing I did is the first thing I should have done before signing any paper work. I researched the regulations and laws around working in houses that have lead based paint. The information is pretty straight forward and available on various government websites. Any reputable contractor should, at the very least, be aware of them.

Questions posed to handymen and contractors on web forums, on the other hand, are almost always of the “the government makes too much of a big deal out of lead” variety. I suppose that’s about what I’d expect — those individuals with the most money in the game will be the individuals most likely to protest regulations.

Though, I entertained those comments and continued my research. What I’ve concluded is that 1) the laws and regulations were created as a result of complex social conditions and scientific research, 2) I’d rather overreact to the threat than under react or get it wrong and put my family at risk, and 3) contractors that dissuade individuals from or refrain from taking appropriate precautions are breaking the law.

The EPA states that: “For exterior renovations, cover the ground and, in some instances, erect vertical containment or equivalent extra precautions in containing the work area.” This is a picture of window replacement — an exterior renovation, no containment and debris strewn about.

The Data and Discovery

Finding 1: Lead has been known to be poisonous since Greek and Roman times. In fact, it is one of the oldest known studies of environmental hazards. Additionally, more current lead bans in residential substances like paint began in Australia in 1897.

Most modern lead poisoning restrictions in the USA stem from the work of Clair Cameron Patterson (who, interestingly enough, lived at Sea Ranch, CA — a beautiful architecturally significant project in northern California) a Chemist who discovered high concentrations of lead in our environment and food. He was able to point to the source of lead being industrial waste.

Later, Rick Nevin, an environmental consultant for the US government, was one of the first to associate elevated levels of crime and delinquency to leaded gasoline. And helped to raise awareness of the correlation between lead poisoning and various health issues.

Result: We’ve known for a very long time that lead is baaaad stuff.

Finding 2: The symptoms and result of lead poisoning in children are subtle and take time to manifest. The common sentiment that “a whole generation grew up around lead paint and we’re okay” is a terrible, terrible perspective.

Lead attacks and debilitates neurological centers of the human body. A 50 year old man who was poisoned by lead when he was a child may seem “okay” but, who’s to know what effects it has had on his chronic health, intelligence, and social status? How many individuals are in prison as a result of bad choices they were unable to distinguish from good because of lead poisoning?

Result: Just because grandma had a lead diet doesn’t mean I want my kids to have one.

Lead level in “Child Play Areas,” not sure where that was exactly on our property. But, technically we shouldn’t be concerned about it. Still seems high to me.

Finding 3: Before the remodel, the lead in the soil at our house measured 335ppm, that’s just under the EPA’s “safe” level of 400ppm. At 300ppm, a child “eating about three quarters of a teaspoon per week could cause elevated blood lead levels of concern.” [source]. Crapola! My son comes in from the yard on a daily basis with dirt smeared around his lips. He also jumps in puddles and rolls in mud. 3/4 teaspoon is tiny! Heck, our dogs probably track more than that into the house in a day.

We unfortunately did not take a post construction soil sample reading. But, our post construction clearance tester dude (aka, the Lead Hygienist), failed our clearance test on account of there still being visible lead paint chips on the perimeter (even after the contractor in question hired a cleaning crew). And so, after time, those will break down into the soil and presumable raise the lead level. We will be covering areas close to the house with thick layers of mulch.

Result: There is no indication that any level of lead is a safe level for children. Without contained construction practices, lead dust and chips can enter the soil where children are most likely to come in contact with it (via direct contact or from tracking into the house).

Finding 4: In reviewing the pictures of the project and comparing it to the EPA’s guidelines for working in such an environment we discovered that our contractor took none of the recommended steps or precautions to contain the lead dust and paint. Including:

  • Workers not wearing respirators or protective clothing
  • No containment boundaries
  • No HEPA vacuums
  • They were not certified
  • Anyone was allowed into the house at any time, including children (we should have been banned or instructed to wear respirators on entry)
  • No coverings on the floors
  • No planned cleanup by certified abatement professionals and no consistent daily cleanup
No containment. No respirators. No body suits. Old material strewn about the floor with dust and paint chips entering basement cellar through floor boards and into the grass on the exterior.

Both the hygienist that we hired and the one that was hired by the contractor (after our statement of disapproval and much pleading and evidence presenting) stated that the entire project was a “major infraction” and ground for litigation. Both the EPA and Department of Public Health strongly suggested we report the contractor.

Finally, after the cleanup, we had a Lead Clearance Test done (which actually is not required if you are working with a certified contractor). The dust on the interior came back positive before the cleanup. Afterwards, it came back clean though, as mentioned previously failed on the exterior on account of there being visible paint chips still (and the fact that there are still lead hazards on the house, like the siding).

One last discovery I made, albeit too late, was that when the contractor hired the cleaning crew and clearance test, that represented a conflict of interest and the HUD clearance testing manual clearly states that the home owner should hire the hygienist to prevent such a scenario. Glad we at least hired our guy too! Especially since the hygienist that was hired by the contractor made no mention of the still visible paint chips on the exterior and claimed that the contractor fought him on every little expense.

Result: Even after a thorough cleanup, living in such a property will always present lead dust concerns on the outside and inside. However, this does not alleviate the contractor from following the regulations around containment and safe work practices.

Reflection

In many ways, this entire thing is our fault for many of the same reasons going over budget and being in a heap of TLC debt is our fault (see The Lead House (Pt. 1).

Though, ultimately, we trusted someone we thought was a professional. And that is one reason the laws are in place — to protect consumers and workers from those that do not have their interests at heart.

We have not yet decided whether to continue with a report to the EPA and Department of Public Health. The contractor did follow through with a cleanup but, that’s like saying “sorry I fire bombed your house, we’ll repaint it.” They still broke the law and put us and their workers at risk. Along the way they also continued to push back on a proper cleaning and presented some documents that may have been an attempt to misinform us.

The EPA fines range from a few thousand dollars to tens of thousands. I am generally non-confrontational and that is probably the real reason I don’t want to report them, aside from not knowing whether I’m just doing it out of retribution — it’s a little fuzzy to me. I am concerned that they might do this to someone else. At the very least, a social media campaign is in order (reviews on all the pertinent sites) — is that too light?

In the end, this is all a very complex situation. The house will always be at risk for lead contamination, this project just made it worse. We are moving into the house in two weeks. We will do our best to maintain the lead paint and keep our kids clean.

Damn you plumbum, damn you!

What You Can (Should) Do

If you live in an old house or are renting a dwelling that is old (built before 1978), you should inspect all areas of friction: door and window jambs, trim work, molding, and exterior surfaces. If they are in bad shape, be sure to tell your landlord or read up on how to maintain them yourself. The best option would be to hire a professional abatement firm (be sure to check that they are in the EPA’s registry).

If you have children, it might be a good idea to get a lead test done. It’s a small prick on the foot or hand and results are instant. Do not be alarmed, be educated. Wash their hands when they come in from outside, institute a no shoes policy in your house. Clean often and use a wet mop or HEPA vacuum for the floors.

If you are planning on renovating a house built before 1978, assume that there is lead in it and have a test done. Make sure your contractor is in the EPA’s registry and make sure they are following the various regulations. Doing the project the correct way is going to cost you more money, maybe prohibitively more. But, that’s fair to contractors that do it the right way and bid high.

Any step you take to reduce exposure to lead dust, especially in children, is a step worth your time and effort.

Part 3 of this series will be posted after some time in the house and our experiences of living in the property. 01/19/2017 Update: Part 3 is here

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