Living Smart: Lead paint is still a threat, but it shouldn't be

McClatchy-Tribune Information Services

If you or someone you know is planning work on a pre-1978 home, please make time to take precautions against the possibility of lead poisoning.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that about 500,000 U.S children ages 1 to 5 have elevated lead levels in their blood. Lead paint, estimated to exist in 40 percent of the U.S. housing stock, is considered the most hazardous source of lead for U.S. children, along with lead-contaminated dust.

Even a tiny amount of lead can cause nervous system, kidney, hearing or other damage, as well as development problems. Children age 6 and younger are at special risk because they lack the developed blood-brain barrier that protects older children and adults from more severe effects.

Since 1978, the federal government has banned residential use of lead-based paint. But old paint can chip. Also, any project that disturbs old paint — such as painting, remodeling or window installation — can create dust and debris that an infant or child may inhale or ingest. That’s why the Environmental Protection Agency has required, since 2010, that contractors whose work disturbs lead paint be trained and certified in proper safety techniques.

Unfortunately, our research team recently found significant discrepancies between what federal law requires regarding lead-safe home-improvement practices and what some service providers tell potential customers.

Posing as parents who wanted work to be done in their 2-year-old’s bedroom in a 1920s home, our team called 150 renovation contractors. We said we wanted to know the proper ways to strip paint or replace windows, window frames and door frames. Nearly 32 percent of the contractors told us they didn’t have EPA lead-safety certification, and nearly 11 percent described work practices that might actually result in lead poisoning.

In 2007, when our team conducted similar research, about a third of contractors we interviewed gave advice contradictory to federal guidelines. I’m glad there’s been an improvement, but our work shows that homeowners must take matters into their own hands when ensuring the safety of their loved ones.

If you own a pre-1978 house, or your kids spend time in one, please spend the time and money it takes to ensure that a home improvement project doesn’t create a health hazard:

* Hire someone to test your home for lead. There are many in-home kits you can buy, but for more certainty, hire a reputable, experienced lead detection service.

* Ask any painting or remodeling contractor you’re considering if the company is appropriately certified in lead-safe practices.

* Don’t just take their word for it. Verify that the company is, indeed, certified. Visit http://cfpub.epa.gov/flpp/searchrrp—firm.htm .

* Ask a company representative which individual employees are trained. Verify their certification. Make sure at least one employee trained in lead-safe practices will supervise your job.

* During the project, notice how workers deal with and dispose of debris. Look for use of HEPA (High Efficiency Particulate Arresting) filters and plastic sheeting. Compare what you witness with recommended practices.

* If you’re doing your own painting or remodeling, take time to research and follow lead safety techniques. Visit http://www.cdc.gov/nceh/lead/tips.htm .

It so happens that Oct. 19-25 is Lead Poisoning Prevention Week this year. If all of us — contractors, regulators and homeowners — do what we’re supposed to do, perhaps lead-paint poisoning will become a thing of the past.