One day recently I returned to my home at the end of the day and found that a neighbor had hired a painter whose crew had pressure-washed a river of colorful paint chips into the sidewalk and street along our block. I got out my lead testing kit, found that the paint was lead paint, and knocked on the neighbor’s door. They weren’t home, so I planned to stop by the next morning. Apparently another neighbor had also noticed the paint, though, and had called the city, because early the next morning an inspector was leading the crew around, showing them the problem. The crew shortly afterward spent several hours vacuuming the sidewalk and street clear of paint chips.
I don’t know if the painter faced any other consequences, but I have no sympathy at all for him. Our neighborhood has several families with small children. I went to (and paid for) training to get my San Francisco contracting company EPA-certified as a lead-safe contractor, and I learned just how bad lead paint is. In 1978, decades after European countries had outlawed lead paint, the U.S. finally disallowed the use of lead in house paints. In following years, we also eliminated leaded gasoline and other sources of lead in the general environment. Now, the main source of lead as a hazard to American children is remodeling and renovation activity. When contractors go into a home and tear it apart, or scrape or sand old finishes, we create dust out of the old paint lurking underneath more recent layers of paint. That dust is just as poisonous as it ever was, and in the form of dust and flakes, it’s very easy for children to ingest it. And apparently lead paint is sweet, so small children like to eat it.
And lead is really poisonous, especially to children. One reason for its menace is that it chemically mimics calcium, which plays an important role in bone growth, blood chemistry, and nervous system and brain chemistry. Lead stays in the body for a long time, so it has a long time to do its damage.
There’s some expense in being careful about lead. Removing or re-surfacing lead finishes requires more hand labor, more care about cleaning, and the purchase of some extra supplies and equipment. And contractors have a legitimate gripe about the EPA underestimating the cost of being careful about lead. But with careful planning, it’s possible to keep the costs manageable.
So ask your contractor what they’re doing to keep their remodeling activities from exposing the children in your neighborhood to the hazards of lead. It’s really an important question.