There’s little, if any, argument that lead-based paints in homes can be toxic, particularly to young children, who are susceptible to brain damage or learning disabilities if they ingest it. And tons of it — literally — are out there: The Environmental Protection Agency estimates lead was used in paint in more than 38 million homes before it was banned for residential use in 1978.

As of April, if you renovate a home that was built before 1978, potentially sending the paint’s potent substance into the air, your contractor will have to prove that he’s able to get the lead out.

There’s little, if any, argument that lead-based paints in homes can be toxic, particularly to young children, who are susceptible to brain damage or learning disabilities if they ingest it.

And tons of it — literally — are out there: The Environmental Protection Agency estimates lead was used in paint in more than 38 million homes before it was banned for residential use in 1978.

As of April, if you renovate a home that was built before 1978, potentially sending the paint’s potent substance into the air, your contractor will have to prove that he’s able to get the lead out.

A new federal law requires that remodeling contractors and painters who work on such older homes complete an eight-hour course on containing and safely removing lead-contaminated materials such as drywall, plaster and wood trim and paneling.

Five things to know about the Lead Renovation, Repair and Painting Rule:

1. The lead-containment rule doesn’t apply to all homes: Only those built prior to 1978 are affected. And it doesn’t apply to comparatively small jobs, such as those that affect less than 6 square feet of painted surface per room or less than 20 square feet of painted surface of a home’s exterior. Work crews must be supervised by a certified lead renovator who has passed the mandatory course; certified firms must register with the EPA. (Do-it-yourself homeowners aren’t affected by the new rule.) 

2. The EPA and a number of state health departments around the country are overseeing the training of tradesmen, according to Ada Duffey, president of the Milwaukee Lead/Asbestos Information Center in Wisconsin. She estimates her firm has trained 4,500 people in the construction trades on the rule since September.

"There are particular work practices (that now must be followed), such as posting warning signs and keeping people out of the work area," she said. "They must use a HEPA vacuum (or high-efficiency particle arrestor, to filter contaminants), and they’re going to have to clean up really thoroughly at the end, packaging up their waste and removing it from the site."

Some other requirements include testing for lead before beginning a job, and if lead is found, the workers must seal off the site with plastic and seal-off doors and air-conditioning vents. The workers also must use respirators and conduct a "cleaning verification" of the area at the completion of the project.

3. In addition to requiring certain steps, the new law also forbids some fairly common practices.

Among them: open-flame burning or torching of paint; using a heat-gun above 1,100 degrees Fahrenheit; using paint strippers that contain methylene chloride; using machines that remove paint through abrasive blasting, sand painting, machine sanding, among others, unless the devices have approved filters; high-pressure water blasting, unless it’s in a contained area or works with approved filtration.

4. The EPA estimated that steps taken to follow the new rule would add $8 to $167 to the cost of an interior job, though many in the construction industry say the steps, including taking the course, could add considerably more.

Remodeling magazine, a trade journal, estimated it could add 5 to 11 percent in labor and materials costs to home-renovation projects.

5. The EPA maintains a list of renovators, by ZIP code or by city and state, who have completed the federally run training program at www.epa.gov/lead. Wisconsin, Iowa, North Carolina, Mississippi, Kansas, Rhode Island and Utah are administering their own programs, and the EPA suggests homeowners in those states who are seeking trained renovators contact the National Lead Information Center, 800-424-LEAD (5323).

Mary Umberger is a freelance writer in Chicago.

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