Some environmental issues are so old, they almost seem dead. One of those issues is lead paint. It got a lot of press in the 1970’s, but even today there are nearly 300,000 kids with high lead levels. Now the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency wants to protect children when older homes get a facelift. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Shawn Allee has this look:
Some environmental issues are so old, they almost seem dead. One of those issues is lead
paint. It got a lot of press in the 1970’s, but even today there are nearly 300,000 kids with
high lead levels. Now the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency wants to protect
children when older homes get a facelift. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Shawn
Allee has this look:
The 1970’s were filled with horror stories of toddlers eating lead paint chips. It was
pretty serious stuff. Children became mentally retarded or even died from it.
You don’t read those stories much anymore.
(sound of kids playing)
But for Chicago lead inspector Earl Coleman, lead paint’s still a daily reality. Today he’s
at this house because a child here tested high for lead. It’s a high priority inspection –
there are eleven children living here… and that’s not all.
“This particular stop’s also a daycare, so we get extra benefits from the fact that it’s not
just a child in the house. All those that come here and get service will benefit from this
Coleman sets up his lead detector.
And starts in a children’s room. It’s decorated with Disney knickknacks and pink paint.
As he checks the walls, he explains lead chips aren’t the only danger.
“What happens is, with lead, once it begins to deteriorate, it creates dust, and from that
moment on dust then is spread very easily.”
This invisible dust gets on furniture, clothes and toys, and to a kid, any of these is
fair game for chewing. Coleman eyes the window nearby.
If it’s got lead paint, opening or closing it could spread toxic dust. Two grade-school
girls comb their dolls’ hair while sitting just below the window. Coleman leans over
them to get a reading.
“If a child’s been cooped up in the house all day long and they want to know what’s
going on outside, the best place to look is through the window, so you touch the window,
you sit in the window, and yes, we have lead here.”
A minute ago, this was just a play area, but with this simple check, the girls now are
playing under an official lead hazard. Ingesting dust could be as easy as forgetting to
wash their hands before lunch. The other windows test positive, too.
Luckily, the homeowner qualifies for a free program to replace the windows, but
programs like that don’t reach everybody. That’s why the EPA wants home contractors to
get training before they repair older homes.
Coleman supports the idea. He says, if just opening a window creates a threat, think of
what sanding one can do.
One time, he was called to a building that had just been totally rehabbed.
“It was ready for show. Anybody that would walk through the place would say this place
is beautiful, but he had so much dust still there, that there was fine, fine film in that
place, and the kid got sick because there was still lead dust, all over everything.”
He says the contractor had a great reputation, but just didn’t know any better. Coleman
says that’s pretty common, but some rehab industry reps say the rules aren’t needed.
Vince Butler’s with the National Association of Home Builders. The group also
represents home rehabbers. Butler worries contractors will have trouble paying for
mandatory training. He says those training costs will be passed on to consumers, and
that’ll mean higher prices.
“The concern is that you get frustrated and decide, heck, I’ll just do it myself and do the
best I can. Or, you hire somebody that comes in there and, god forbid, starts sanding
things and burning things to get rid of that paint, and makes the problem much worse
than had a professional had come in and employed what we know to be safe work
Butler says unprofessional repairs could leave even more lead dust around.
The EPA doubts that. It says homeowners will still hire professionals because repair
prices won’t rise much.
Meanwhile, advocates support the rules. Anita Weinberg heads a group called Lead-Safe
Illinois. She says children’s health shouldn’t be left to the rehab industry’s voluntary
training. When Weinberg tries making that point to politicians, she often gets frustrated.
Just like everyone else, politicians feel the problem’s ancient history.
“When we go and talk to legislators they often wind up saying, I thought the problem was
solved, and in fact, the problem is that lead doesn’t disappear.”
And Weinberg says even the EPA’s been slow to fight the problem. Congress asked for
these new rules for rehab contractors thirteen years ago.
The EPA will hear comments on the home repair rules over the next few months. In the
meantime, Weinberg and other advocates will push to keep the strongest provisions.
They’ll also ask the EPA to improve follow-up testing.
That way, homeowners can be sure no lead dust was left behind after a rehab.
Weinberg’s not sure whether to be heartened by the EPA’s proposal.
“It’s not depressing in that we really know what we should be doing about it and can
make those efforts. It is depressing that we’re not yet doing it sufficiently.”
That’s even after decades worth of research showing lead poisons children.
For the GLRC, I’m Shawn Allee.