Lead Paint

Why delead?

Forced to delead twice.

Forced to use deleaders to paint.

It doesn’t stop poisoning.

It doesn’t educate tenants.

Sometimes it poisons them.

Now we learn that a deleading job can be worthless the day it’s done or within months.

Why delead? 
      You bit the bullet. You opened your wallet. You deleaded your apartment. After thousands of dollars and much worry, you got an official-looking “certificate of compliance” saying your apartment conforms with the state’s rigid lead laws. Finally, you think, you are safe.
      Right? Wrong. You could face a second round of deleading on the same unit. And just painting the unit probably requires costly deleaders, not ordinary painters.
      Some certificates of compliance are worthless from the start, others within months. These aren’t just old certificates issued under outdated regs. They are new certificates given for incomplete deleading or recent certificates that become null and void as soon as an apartment suffers any “wear and tear.”

The hard way
      A Cambridge widow in her 50s recently found out the hard way just how worthless a certificate of compliance can be.
      Only two weeks after she bought her three-family house near Harvard Square with her dead husband’s life insurance, state inspectors descended en masse and declared a previously deleaded unit with a poisoned child out of compliance. Deleaders wanted $10,000 or more to do the work.
      “Every cent I had went for the down payment,” she said. “I hadn’t even gotten the first rent check. The bank said ’You haven’t even made your first mortgage payment and you’re asking for a loan?’”
      She thought she had done everything right. “I was absolutely floored. Here I thought I was a smart woman. I got a letter of compliance from Harvard University [the seller].”
      The apartment was deleaded just two years before, in 1995, under current regulations. To make matters even more absurd, both the mother of the poisoned child and the owner-widow knew the child was not poisoned at home. The child was at daycare weekdays from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. and in the father’s home weekends. The child was at home just to sleep. But guess what! The daycare center had been closed at least twice “for lead problems.”
      No matter. The unit had to be re-deleaded. That’s the law. Mindless. Arbitrary. Automatic.

Out of compliance
      Two things can invalidate a certificate of compliance. The original deleading may have been incomplete and slipped passed the final inspection. Or the original deleading may have fallen out of compliance even moments after the final inspection.
      In the latter case, the hook lies buried in the not-so-fine print on the certificate of compliance itself, which says: “The premises or dwelling unit and relevant common areas shall remain in compliance only as long as there continues to be no peeling, chipping, or flaking lead paint...”
      So what happened to the Cambridge widow’s unit? In two years, the bedroom baseboard had been scraped by the child’s crib rubbing against it, the living room baseboard had been scraped by a rocking chair, paint on the outer hallway ceilings was cracking, and the whole back porch just “needed to be redone.”

The whole schmeer
      Not much, in a way, but an owner can’t just scrape away the chipping paint and repaint. Once a unit is deleaded, what was previously an ordinary repair becomes a hazardous substance removal problem. The entire deleading process is triggered, the whole schmeer: move the tenants out, pay their rent elsewhere, plastic over all the floors and furniture, bring in workers dressed in space suits and respirators, scrape the offending paint off, clean up with a HEPA vacuum twice, wash down with TSP, test for residue dust with “wipe tests.” Since a poisoned child and state inspectors were involved in the case of the Cambridge widow, all the woodwork in the child’s room was also re-scraped, “just to be safe.” The widow turned to Lead-Safe Cambridge, a local organization that helps owners delead with low-interest loans, and the price came down to $6,000. Still no small sum, considering this was the second round of deleading in two years. And two years from now, when more paint starts to peel...?

No isolated event
      This widow’s experience is not unique. The state’s lead agency maintains three full-time employees whose job is to “monitor complaints” about deleading contractors and inspectors.
      A local deleading contractor said he sees four or five cases every year of out-of-compliance units that go through re-deleading, costing owners thousands of dollars, “never less than $1,000.” In one Belmont home, he said, the whole front porch railing was overlooked in the original deleading. That was discovered after an entire reinspection of the house, triggered by a tenant’s call to the inspector over one small item: the owner had simply removed a screen door, uncovering a narrow strip of lead paint around the doorway. That invalidated the certificate of compliance. Other defects were found, and the new round of deleading cost thousands of dollars.

Trigger of poisoning
      Often, reinspection is triggered by a poisoned child. What, the original deleading did not work? Of course not. As many studies now show, virtually all the deleading actions mandated by law do nothing to stop or prevent poisoning. Worse yet, dust from deleading can actually cause poisoning. Meanwhile, the real source for most poisoning — soil around the home contaminated by lead — gets zero treatment in the official protocol. Or children may get poisoned from non-home environments: playgrounds, daycare centers, friends’ and relatives’ homes. Or an already poisoned child moves into a deleaded unit.

The prudent owner?
      So deleading doesn’t stop poisoning, but maybe a certficate of compliance helps an owner legally. Not much, according to a top Boston attorney in lead litigation. “It never stops a lawsuit, the exposure is still there, and the plaintiffs will argue you were out of compliance anyway. It only gives you a little leverage.” But isn’t an owner “strictly liable” without a letter of compliance. “No. We win strict liability all the time.”       Letters of compliance do help owners get lead liability insurance, but deleading whole buildings is often just too expensive.
      So what do prudent owners do? Since what really stops poisoning is quite simple to do (see column at right), owners might just do those things and forget deleading until forced into it?


The big myth
      The costliest, most hazardous part of deleading is the dry-scraping of lead-painted woodwork, based on the 50-year-old myth that children chew it.
      The deleading contractor we spoke to — seven years in the business — said he has never seen chewing or teeth marks on woodwork that’s required to be scraped.
      And a lead inspector we spoke to — 19 years in the business! — said he too has never seen chewing or teeth marks on the same type of woodwork. “Not even on window sills,” he added.


Mr. Petrie’s advice
      We called Roy Petrie, associate director of the Massachusetts Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention Program, to find out what to do with peeling paint or repairs after an apartment’s deleading.
      During the conversation, he said:
      “This is just advice, not a policy statement.”
      “It depends on the correction being used.”
      “You are well advised to call a deleader if it’s dust-generating.”
      “It’s very difficult for me to give an opinion.”
      “I can’t define in every situation what is going to constitute negligence.”
      “The prudent way to do it [repair peeling paint] is to employ a deleading contractor if it’s a big area.”
      “What’s a ’big’ area?” we asked Mr. Petrie.
      “That’s a judgment call,” he replied. “More than one or two square feet is a big job.”
      “But you know,” we said, “you can start scraping old, loosened paint — this just happened to me — and you end up scraping a whole section of wall.”
      Petrie replied: “Not if you have a basically sound, well-maintained building, that won’t happen.”
      Wait a minute. We’re talking about lead paint in older buildings that often go back to the last century, that often have had a history of many different owners in each case. “Well-maintained” isn’t always in the current owner’s control.
      “So what you are saying,” we went on with Mr. Petrie, “is if you want to paint an apartment after a certificate of compliance, you should call in a deleading contractor.”       “I’m not saying that,” Mr. Petrie hurriedly shot back.
      What are you saying, Mr. Petrie?


How to prevent a child from getting poisoned.

Owners:
      1.Regularly clean the dust and debris out of window wells and sills using paper towels and a solution of TSP or Cascade dishwashing detergent.
      2.Cover up, fence off, landscape or otherwise contain bare dirt around the home. Dust from contaminated soil around the home is often the No. 1 source of lead for children.
      3.Install door mats, an amazingly effective way to cut household lead dust.
      4.Keep interior and exterior paint in good condition.
      5.Give tenants with young children a copy of SPOA’s brochure “Simple Steps to Keep Kids Lead Clean.” Well-informed parents are the first and easiest line of defense. And often poisoning happens away from the home.

Parents:
      1.Wash children’s hands often. Virtually all poisoning occurs hand-to-mouth.
      2.Follow steps # 1 to # 4 above.

How to repair or repaint lead-painted surfaces safely.
      1.Tape heavy plastic drop cloths to the floor in the work area. Cover all furnishings with heavy plastic and tape it down. In a kitchen, remove all food and cooking equipment and utensils; cover and tape all surfaces with plastic. At the end, fold all the debris into the plastic and dispose of it carefully.
      2.Never power-sand, dry-scrape or even hand-sand surfaces that might contain lead. The fine dust particles are highly toxic, even to workers.
      3.Gently remove only already loosened or peeling paint with a putty knife, wetting down the surface with a water spray in advance. Do not aggressively scrape surfaces in an attempt to remove all the paint; just make the paint intact. The aim is to keep dust to an absolute minimum. Dust is much harder to manage than paint chips or flakes. Liquid chemical stripping of paint is acceptable if the used stripper is carefully disposed of.
      4.Do not vacuum or sweep the work area; it just spreads the dust. Use only a HEPA-filter vacuum or a wet-washing method. Always end with a thorough wet-washing of the work area, including the walls, using TSP or Cascade.
      5.If large areas are being disturbed or remodeled, make sure occupants are not present for the duration of the work, and seal off the work area with taped plastic to isolate any dust from the rest of the house.