Contractors say new lead regulations too costly

Providence, RI – Regulations designed to eliminate childhood lead poisoning go into effect this month. The change brings strict new requirements for building contractors, property owners, renovators and a host of others who work with lead paint.

While health advocates call the regulations long overdue, some contractors say the cost to comply is way too high.

At the New Hampshire Homebuilders Association, contractors are spreading large sheets of plastic over the floor.

"Let's get our plastic over here. How far up on this wall are we going to lay our tape or our plastic?" says New Hampshire state lead inspector Charles Hillsgrove. He's explaining to contractors how to lay protective sheets down during renovation jobs. Hillsgrove is one of the instructors for a lead paint certification course for contractors.

"What we're trying to teach them is how to contain their workspace so that no dust gets on the floor in people's homes," Hillsgrove says.

It's lead dust that poisons most children. In New Hampshire, 150 children each year are poisoned by lead, a third of them following a home renovation. In Massachusetts more than 800 children are poisoned every year and, in New York, it's as high as 1,500 children.

Kate Kirkwood, who teaches lead certification courses, made that point clear to contractors in a recent class in New Hampshire.

"If we know that the dust we make is toxic, and we're not trained to do what we should do with it to clean it up afterwards, we walk away, and kids get sick," Kirkwood says.

Under the new law, the Environmental Protection Agency will require contractors to take precautions and get certified or potentially face a fine of up to $37,500 per occurrence per day. That may sound steep, but James Bryson, with EPA New England, says the costs are not excessive.

"If you're not doing this, you're not protecting your work area," Bryson says. "Then you could have a child that could be lead poisoned and that's something we don't want, no cost is too high for that."

The law applies to anyone who accepts payment for work in buildings constructed before 1978, the year when lead paint was banned. It applies to any job that disturbs more than six square feet of space, and includes any window replacement. The EPA estimates that 236,000 renovators nationwide need to get training. But Kirkwood says it's likely many more. And she says there aren't enough trainers.

"Last time I checked there were fewer than 100 trainers nationwide," Kirkwood says. "In the state of Maine, they told me they thought there were 16,000 contractors that needed to be trained, and we've trained about 600 so far."

Charles Freiberger, makes homes handicap accessible in New Hampshire. He says he found out about the new certification requirements by chance recently at a home show.

"Most contractors have no clue," he said. "I'll bet probably between 80 and 90 percent of contractors aren't even aware of this rule."

But the lack of awareness isn't the main problem for contractors. It's the cost.

Companies or individuals who do work have to pay a $300 registration fee with the EPA, on top of taking a $200 certification course. Then there are added costs for protective plastics and vacuums.

Len Perkins with C.P. Property Restorers in New Hampshire says it's a good rule, but comes at the wrong time. And he says the fines for not complying could put a small company out of business.

"We're looking at an economy right now with a saturation of contractors," Perkins says. "The government is not realizing what these costs and expenses are going to do to a populace that's already suffering heavily because of the present economy."

States have the option of enforcing the new regulations on contractors for the EPA and make them even stricter. So far, no states in the Northeast have taken that on.

Northeast Environmental coverage is part of NPR's Local News Initiative.