Make sure your contractor follows lead-safety rules

In 1978, the federal government banned lead-based paint in homes after long-term studies showed lead causes severe health problems, especially in children under 6, damaging their nervous systems even before birth.

Yet millions of homes still contain lead-based paint. As long as it's in good condition, it probably isn't a hazard, but scraping and sanding changes that. Dust produced by renovations can be very harmful.

In 2008, the EPA issued the Renovation, Repair and Painting Rule requiring contractors working in pre-1978 homes to be lead-safe certified and use special work practices to contain and clean up dust.

Companies can achieve certification by applying to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (or an authorized state) and having their workers or supervisors take a course on work practices to minimize exposure to lead during renovation, repair, and painting projects.

Even small projects are covered by the law, which kicks in when more than six square feet of painted surface inside or 20 square feet outside are disturbed. The law also applies to landlords who renovate rental properties, but not to DIYers.

Most homeowners are unaware of the law, but all contractors should be aware of their obligations. Unfortunately, many companies still aren't doing what they should.

Checkbook urges anyone who lives in a pre-1978 home to hire only lead-safe certified contractors and demand they follow the law when working in areas where lead-based paint could be disturbed.

A good place to look for information is www.epa.gov/lead. The ratings at www.checkbook.org/inquirer/lead will help you find responsible contractors.

Oct. 23-29 is Lead Poisoning Prevention Week. To evaluate the risks in your home:

Test your children. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, "there is simply no safe level of lead exposure for children." All should be screened for lead at ages 1 and 2. Check the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention pamphlet, "What Do Parents Need to Know to Protect Their Children?" and other information available at www.cdc.gov/nceh/lead.

Check your home. If a blood test indicates your child has been exposed to lead, get a lead-certified professional to check your home. A lead paint inspection performed by a certified contractor tells you only about the lead content of painted surfaces - not whether they are a hazard, or how to deal with them. A risk assessment, conducted by a certified inspector, will indicate sources of serious lead exposure and ways to eliminate them. The risk assessment is thorough and expensive - about $500, plus $10 to $15 per lab sample - but if your child has been exposed, you need to eliminate additional exposure.

Check certifications. If your home was built before 1978, ask prospective contractors to show proof of their lead-safe certification. In any contracts, include a statement saying that the contractor "will follow EPA regulations for containing the work area and minimizing the generation of lead paint dust."

In general, the following steps should be taken:

Keep children and women who could possibly be pregnant out of work areas until the job and cleanup are complete.

Identify any surfaces that might contain lead-based paint that might be disturbed during the work. Unless absolutely necessary, don't disturb these surfaces by sanding, scraping, or cutting. If possible, take materials containing lead-based paint outside to work on.

Seal off rooms where work is performed; remove furnishings.

Be sure workers wear protective clothing and respirators and that all waste generated is properly disposed of. Power tools used to sand or sandblast should be equipped with shrouds and HEPA-filter vacuum attachments.

After work is completed, thoroughly vacuum and clean all surfaces, then test to determine if cleanup was adequate.

It takes extra effort to follow the law, but don't assume it comes at a steep price, and don't allow companies to use the threat of sky-high prices to persuade you to allow them to skimp on the rules.

Checkbook spoke with owners of top-rated painting businesses; most routinely don't charge more when they have to follow the lead-safe law, and those that do charge more assess only a $100 to $200 fee for large jobs.

Window-installation companies we spoke with charge between nothing and $75 more per window when they have to follow the EPA's work rules. It seems a small price to pay to eliminate a potential health hazard to your kids.

Nonprofit Delaware Valley Consumers' Checkbook magazine and Checkbook.org aim to help consumers get the best service and lowest prices. Access ratings of area service providers are free until Nov. 1 at www.checkbook.org/inquirer/lead.