New EPA regulations on lead paint in homes — first promulgated in April 2008 and just made effective — apply to all homes, child care facilities, and schools built before 1978 unless testing establishes that the structure is free of lead paint.
According to the best estimates I can find, there are 72 to 80 million children aged 18 and under in the United States. Children under 6 are most vulnerable to the consequences of lead poisoning, defined as lead levels greater than 10 micrograms of lead per deciliter of blood, “the level at which CDC recommends public health actions be initiated.”
According to the CDC, the greatest source of the elevated lead levels is lead-based paint and lead contaminated dust. The problem was recognized in 1978, when the use of lead in paints was banned for housing use in the U.S. The CDC contends: “All houses built before 1978 are likely to contain some lead-based paint.” The CDC estimates that paint has deteriorated in 24 million U.S housing units, of which 4 million “are homes to one or more young children.”
Yet the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) claims: “Only 24 percent of homes built between 1961 and 1978 used lead paint.”
The EPA reports that the new regulations affect about 38 million homes and apartments, or 40 percent of the existing housing stock in the country. But NAHB Environmental Communications Director Calli Schmidt, in private correspondence with me, said the EPA’s lower total cost figures are based on the existence of an opt-out provision, which the EPA is removing. As the health consequences of lead toxicity are most serious with pregnant women and children under 6, the original draft regulations allowed a provision for homeowners who had no such residents living in their dwellings.
Indeed, according to Schmidt, the new regulations will cover “all 79 million homes built before 1978.”
If that is the case, about 80 percent of U.S. housing stock will be affected.
The size of the problem is not the number of dwellings, but the number of children affected. And that number seems relatively small in view of the number of dwellings the EPA says are creating the risk. The CDC estimates that about 250,000 children have blood levels above the level at which action is recommended, and it also seems the problem is being steadily abated by existing measures.
Figures from the state of New York indicate that the number of children with elevated lead blood levels related to RRP substantially dropped between 1993-1994 and 2006-2007. Significantly, that study also reports that the measures adopted by the EPA, which apply only to contractors, will be far less useful than it might otherwise appear:
Contractors performed a small percentage (6.5%) of RRP [repair, renovation and painting] work related to elevated BLLs [blood lead levels] in New York state during 2006-2007. Resident owners or tenants performed 66% of this work. [Emphasis added.]
A quarter-million affected children should not be ignored — but in assessing remedial measures we need to first consider whether they are effective in terms of cost and results, and whether less onerous options would be equally or more effective.
It’s not clear that the EPA measures are likely to achieve the stated goals. Rather, it seems they are likely to be evaded and harmful to those most in need of assistance, while adding unnecessary cost and burdens to those for whom these measures are less necessary.
The new measures are very detailed and require cumbersome training, certification, and expensive new equipment for established contractors who must and will pass those costs onto the consumer. The EPA says the new law will increase average jobs by only about $100, a figure as likely to be in the ballpark as were the original ObamaCare costs massaged by the Congressional Budget Office.
At a meeting with EPA Assistance Administrator Steve Owens last week, [NAHB Remodelers] gave estimates as low as $500 and as high as $7,000 for the additional costs.
One contractor has estimated that the cost of replacing windows under the new regulatory framework will go up $160 per window.
When you look at the regulatory framework, the association’s estimates seem more realistic than the EPA’s. Contractors must go through expensive and time-consuming training at periodic intervals. To become certified, each contractor must pay the EPA $300 plus an additional $180 to $300 for each employee it certifies. Other burdens:
- Such trained contractors must be on the job at the outset and completion of each project.
- Signs must be posted warning of dangers.
- Special tools must be used, and others avoided.
- Workers must wear special clothing, and very detailed, time-consuming steps must be taken at the conclusion of the work to clean up the site.
Non-compliance will likely be widespread. Most contractors aren’t following the law and aren’t able to because of EPA nonfeasance.
The EPA has not kept its end up. The EPA estimates that 236,000 contractors need to be trained, but as of mid-March only 14,000 had been. EPA had at that late date approved only 146 firms to offer the training nationwide, and some states still had no approved trainers.
The EPA can fine each contractor up to $37,500 per day for being out of compliance, something established contractors could ill afford. But here’s the rub: a great deal of the problem, as the study cited above shows, is caused by the work of do-it-yourself owners and tenants (and — I suspect — small, poorly capitalized, perhaps even unlicensed, contractors) who will continue to work under the radar.
After witnessing the EPA’s slow start, how seriously are we to take its enforcement capabilities?
EPA is counting on the remodelers complying with the law to report contractors who aren’t compliant to EPA with a special tip line, and homeowners can evade the rule if they choose because the law applies to contractors, not homeowners.
Lead poisoning is a greater problem for those who live in older, poorly maintained housing, and 45% of those living below the poverty line own their own homes.
For the time being it seems that many contractors will try to evade the law and hope they don’t get caught, or the work will be done by homeowners who aren’t covered or by tenants and less-established contractors. All of these individuals are less likely to have the training and equipment established contractors have and utilize already.
I foresee a significant dip in low income rental housing in urban areas already substantially impacted by rising fixed costs and rent control measures. Landlords of blocks of such housing will simply walk away from it.
Homes of historic value, particularly in urban areas, which are already very costly to renovate and maintain will simply be allowed to deteriorate.
Homeowners may forego the replacement or removal of old paint because they cannot afford the new measures. And it’s certain that contractors who comply with the law will lose business to less-established contractors who will simply evade the rules and offer their services at a lower cost. If caught, they’ll declare bankruptcy.
For most American homeowners who rely on established contractors, the cost of the simplest renovation and repair work will be significantly higher.
Wouldn’t a problem of such relatively small and decreasing size have been better served by a more targeted blood lead level and paint testing program, education, and remediation effort?
Do the EPA regulations respecting lead paint go far beyond what’s needed and entail far more cost than is necessary to deal with a serious but relatively small problem? Are they overkill which will further deplete existing housing stock for low income earners while encouraging repair, renovation, and painting (RRP) practices which will contribute to more, rather than less, lead pollution to the most vulnerable to injury?
I think the answer to both questions is yes.