Lead paint rule may be skipped by some Martha’s Vineyard builders


Island contractors must take extra precautions when renovating older houses, to minimize the risk of potentially harmful dust from lead paint. A federal law that went into effect almost a year ago requires that contractors take a special certification course.

But only a small percentage of Martha’s Vineyard contractors have taken the course to become certified, so that it is possible that work is being done here on older houses by builders who are not legally allowed to do the work.

Meanwhile the new law has come under fire by those who feel the government has not provided enough training to help builders comply with the law. Some contractors have also questioned the logic of implementing the new law when many contractors are struggling to find work.

There are also questions about how the law should be enforced. For the time being, the law does not require local building inspectors to check whether builders working on older houses are certified, and there are only a handful of inspectors statewide whose job it is to actually enforce the law.

And on an Island where construction by unlicensed workers is already commonplace, it may be that the new law actually encourages some contractors to skirt the requirements, so they can underbid their competitors who choose to spend the time and money to comply.

Lead paint dangers

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) imposed the new rule officially on April 22, 2010. It requires builders who work on most houses built prior to 1978 to be lead-safe certified under the regulations that apply to renovation, repair and painting (RRP) work.

The law applies to structures built before 1978, inhabited by, or frequently visited by, a child age six or under. Lead paint is considered a dangerous substance, and the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission banned its use in 1977.

It is considered especially dangerous to children under the age of six, who are still developing. Lead poisoning can cause damage to the nervous system, stunted growth, and delayed development, according to the EPA website.

The law applies to common renovation work such as sanding, cutting, and demolition, all of which can create hazardous lead dust and chips by disturbing lead-based paint. The law requires property owners to use certified renovators trained by EPA-approved training providers.

Individuals may become certified renovators by taking an eight-hour training course. After being certified, all builders working on a pre-1978 house must perform a chemical test to check for the presence of lead paint.

If that test shows the presence of lead paint, the builder must inform the homeowners, post signs, and seal off the work area. Workers must wear masks, clothing, and respirators, and take extra precautions for removing debris and blocking off work sites.

Compliance complications

Joseph Capece, owner of Centerline Remodeling, said he is in the small minority of Island contractors who have taken the RRP certification course, although he thinks complying with the new law has the potential to both benefit and hurt his business.

While the certification will comfort some property owners, he said taking the extra steps to comply will cost him more and allow other contractors who ignore the law to undercut and outbid him.

“It could cost me 30 to 40 percent more than some of my competitors, and could wind up costing me work,” he said. “I am sure there are contractors out there that don’t care [about compliance], they just care about their bottom line.”

Mr. Capece also raised the question of enforcement. As of now, there is no requirement that a contractor provide proof of certification when working on a house built before 1978 when they apply for a building permit, and most people aren’t even aware of the EPA law.

“So when they hire a contractor, they don’t think to ask [if they are certified], because they don’t know to ask. In a way it’s up to the contractor to educate the homeowners, and I’m not sure that’s happening,” he said.

Mr. Capece said although the new law is not perfect, it was well-intentioned. “Most people say as long as you don’t eat lead paint chips, you’re fine. But that’s not true. The dust is the real threat, and it’s invisible. You can’t see it, you can’t taste it, and you can’t smell it,” he said

Mr. Capece said he has heard complaints from some contractors who feel the law is too strict, but he does not share their feelings.

“You can go online to certain trade websites and find everyone bitching they have to go through this and that, and how it’s a real pain. But I stand up for the lead rule. I say: Yes, it’s a pain, but if it stops one kid from getting lead poisoning it’s worth it,” he said.

“Lots of Complications”

Island contractor Douglas Best, who is also RRP certified, agreed the law was necessary for some buildings, especially those where children gather, such as daycares and schools. But he also was not shy about pointing out the rule’s flaws, which he says are numerous.

“It translates to lots of reports, lots of regulations, and lots of complications for those trying to do the right thing,” he said. “It adds a whole new layer of costs and mitigation, at a time when a lot of people are already struggling.”

Mr. Best said it requires contractors to use a huge amount of plastic to wrap up everything that has lead paint in it, which comes at a great cost. He said he is certain there are contractors doing work on homes right now who are not RRP-certified.

“We already have bad people who don’t comply with other laws, they are unlicensed to begin with, they don’t have their contractor’s license; they don’t have liability insurance or liability. So you can be sure they aren’t going off-Island to get certified for lead paint,” he said.

“It’s just one more level allowing some contractors to undercut others,” he added.

He also said the law may have an unintended consequence for homeowners.

“This law requires you to seal things off and post signs everywhere. It could basically scare the heck out of someone. So some aspects are self-defeating. Some people don’t want a sign on their front lawn . . . they don’t want people to think their house is being condemned,” he said.

Enforcement questions

West Tisbury building Inspector Ernie Mendenhall said the new law doesn’t really affect building officials. “As of right now, we are not tasked with enforcement. We might down the road, but that could wind up just being another unfunded mandate,” he said.

Lenny Jason, building inspector of Edgartown and Chilmark, said many people aren’t even aware of the new law. “I know ignorance of the law is no excuse, but that’s the reality,” he said.

Mr. Jason said that most people were aware of the dangers of lead paint before the law went into effect and took steps a long time ago to remove the potentially harmful materials. “To be honest, I think a lot of people took care of it already,” he said.

He also said the new law seemed heavy-handed, at least in his opinion.

“It’s like trying to kill a mosquito with a sledgehammer,” he said.