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Home Contractors Brace For Lead Paint Rules

Contractors clean up lead paint at a contaminated building in Providence, R.I.
Chitose Suzuki
Contractors clean up lead paint at a contaminated building in Providence, R.I.

April 22 is D-Day for the home renovation industry.

It's the deadline for contractors to obtain certification that they're trained to work in homes that contain lead paint.

Lead was a standard ingredient in paint until 1978, when the government banned the sale of lead paint for use in residences because of the danger to children. Any home built before then is likely to have lead paint.

With the deadline fast approaching, the industry isn't trying to block the rules, but it would like a delay.

Charlie Dorsey, a regional sales manager for Gorell Windows and Doors, says the vast majority of contractors didn't know these new rules were coming until recently. He says only around 5 percent of contractors have taken the classes to get certified.

The change in their workplaces could be dramatic.

Workers who can now wear shorts and T-shirts for a simple window replacement job will have to wear coveralls made of sturdy Tyvek fiber, respirators, goggles, hoods, rubber gloves and rubber boots.

Among numerous other safety requirements, workers will have to lay plastic sheeting around the work area, and post yellow "caution" tape as well as signs that say "Lead Poison Hazard: Do Not Enter."

Dorsey says some of the requirements might go too far. He says two-thirds of the homes renovators work in have lead paint. And given that the industry is still struggling to survive the housing bust, "it's going to take the construction industry out at the knees. Right now our industry is saddled with 25 to 27 percent unemployment," he adds.

EPA officials say that's an exaggeration. The government published the rules in 2008, giving the industry two years to prepare.

Child health advocates don't have much sympathy, either.

Rebecca Morley, executive director of the nonprofit National Center for Healthy Housing, says manufacturers and contractors have dragged their feet and didn't take the change seriously until just before the deadline.

Morley's group runs training courses for contractors. "We've seen a tripling of the number of training courses that we've booked in March and April," she says, adding that, like anything else, sometimes a hard-and-fast deadline is needed to get something done.

The EPA seems committed to enacting the new rules. Even now, about a million children each year are affected by lead poisoning as a result of lead exposure, predominantly from paint.

The rules aren't that onerous, says Steve Owens, the EPA's assistant administrator for toxic substances.

He says only one worker at any job site needs training, and nearly 100,000 people have already been trained, so many times more workers than that will be able to stay on the job. He says the industry will have to get on board.

But contractors and manufacturers groups still hope for more time. They're lobbying Congress and the EPA to push back the deadline, and hundreds of contractors plan to make their point at a rally in Washington on April 15.

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