The opt-out provision of the EPA’s RRP rule was a good thing for remodelers, and many are complaining now that the EPA has rescinded that provision. Some people don’t understand what all the fuss is about. “If lead paint is such a hazard,” they ask, “ why was anyone ever allowed to opt out of the RRP rule?”

It’s a complicated issue. Without going into the complete history of the lead paint ban (see the links at the end of this article), it is enough to say that when lead in gasoline was outlawed, the lead blood levels in kids dropped like a rock, and paint, which was the number two source on the list, found itself in first place. Studies were done showing that ingestion of lead-paint chips and dust resulted in elevated lead blood levels, especially in children under 6. Lead poisoning is insidious in women who may become pregnant because it is stored in the bones (for as long as 30 years) and masquerades as calcium and iron; years after an exposure, a woman’s pregnancy can cause the lead to be drawn out of the bones and into the developing organs of her fetus.

One of the problems with the RRP rule, however, is that there is no definitive study that shows that a significant proportion of lead chips and dust are created by professional remodelers. Some amount is created this way, of course, but it appears that the vast majority of exposure to lead dust is created either by the remodeling activities of D-I-Y owners and renters, or through simple actions of everyday living, like opening and closing lead-painted doors and windows (which abrades the paint and releases dust, which lands on the floor or on toys, etc., which kids crawl around on and play with while putting their fingers in their mouth). A lot of this – maybe most of it -- happens in public housing where lead paint was used initially because of its durability, but where landlords don’t do much remodeling or maintenance and the tenants can’t afford to hire professionals. So doors and windows that start to stick go unrepaired, causing more abrasion of paint; and when painted components are sanded or scraped or otherwise worked on, the tenants are doing it themselves.

A recent Ted Cushman blog about the RRP and the question of how much lead dust exposure is created by remodeling professionals cites one recent study in New York that illustrates the ambiguous nature of the research.

It’s obvious that protecting kids and pregnant women from lead poisoning is a great idea, but the way EPA has gone about it is less than ideal. One concern about the opt-out is that remodeling will happen in a home that has no children under six or pregnant women living in it at the time, clean up will follow the usual procedures, and lots of lead dust will be left lying around in cracks and crevices, up high on molding edges, in the corners of closets, in the air distribution ductwork, etc. Now the house gets sold – sometimes the remodeling is done to help sell the house – and a family with a bunch young kids moves in. How often this happens, however, is difficult to ascertain, and even when it does happen, there is no data on the change in blood lead levels in the affected children.

Another issue surrounding the lead-safe practices and the opt-out has to do with projects where the procedures are, in fact, followed. There is no requirement to abate all of the lead in a home where lead paint is found; only those components that will be affected by the work are subject to the lead-safe practices. In one recent project in DC, for example, a small master bath was being remodeled and lead paint was found in the door and window trim and on the door itself. Lead-safe practices were used to remove those materials, but every other window in the house (all double-hung, the worst offenders for abrading of paint), every other door, and every other piece of trim was obviously coated with exactly the same paint. The owner was aware that lead paint was likely present in the woodwork throughout the house, but elected to do nothing about it. To me, that’s the same as an opt-out.

So it’s not as simple as just doing the right thing.  To me it seems likely that the EPA rule will actually result in more lead paint exposure because more homeowners will “opt-out” of hiring a pro to do the work or will do the demolition themselves.

BTW, the lead paint issue isn’t new to the remodeling industry. JLC began covering the issue as early as 1986. Here is a list of some of the articles addressing the topic (some are pay-per-view):

Restoration Primer: The Hazards of Home Repair
JLC, Sep/1986

Lead Paint: A Renovator’s Hazard
JLC, Sep/1989

The Legal Column: Liability for Lead Paint Grows
JLC, Nov/1992

Lead Paint Update
JLC, Sep/1993

Remodeler’s Guide to Lead Paint
JLC, Oct/1995

Commonsense Lead Safety
JLC, Oct/2001

Lead-Safe Remodeling
JLC, Sep/2004