Posted by: jeb1 | July 8, 2010

EPA Lead RRP – Reality Check

From Ted Cushman’s Remodeling Blog

As you’re probably aware, the Environmental Protection Agency has been getting some criticism, and some political pressure, around the newly-adopted lead RRP rule. EPA has now offered contractors something of a reprieve, postponing the date by which contractors will be required to get trained and certified in rule compliance. They’ve thrown the industry a bone, but not much of one — they’re giving you some time to get trained, but you still have to comply with the containment practices as of now, even if you’re not trained yet (go figure).

But some contractors have already been to their one-day training, and some of those are starting to take on jobs where they’re using the practices they’ve been taught. I noticed an example the other day: Illinois contractor Holly Bertsch, of Taylor’d Home, blogged about a day on the job where the crew is tearing out plaster after applying dust containment all around the job (“More Reality about Working with the RRP Rule (It’s Hot and Uncomfortable!” by Holly Bertsch). This link loads kind of slowly, by the way — but Holly writes, “Anyhow, one of the reasons this demolition is taking so long is because we are so hot and uncomfortable in the house.  Anyone who has torn out plaster knows how much fun that isn’t, but it is even worse in the suits, and the masks, and the heat.”

My comment to Holly was that I think it’s possible to ventilate a work area and still maintain containment if you have the right equipment. Some years ago, in connection with a story for JLC, I went on site to take photos where a crew from IAQ Technologies, a contractor with a specialty in indoor environmental work, was doing a full-on mold remediation job. These guys set up a HEPA-filter-equipped exhaust blower within their contained workspace, and they put on full-body Tyvek suits with hoods and booties. They used full-face respirators sealed to their Tyvek suits — the kind of respirator that’s equipped with its own positive-pressure filtered blower, with a power pack that hooks to your belt. Each piece of drywall they pulled off the wall went straight into a plastic bag; then they vacuumed the air out of the bags and sealed the bags with duct tape. My whole gallery of photos from that day is now posted up at this link (pardon the low quality images — 2003 was a different era in digital photography). Below here, you can see the guys suiting up, then busting off sheets of moldy drywall, sticking each piece in the bags, vacuuming the air out of the bags, and sealing each bag with duct tape. The box with the duct coming out is their HEPA exhaust ventilator.

Donning gloves

Checking face mask

Bagging drywall

Sealing bag

HEPA exhaust ventilator

There was enough ventilation in the space to keep it reasonably comfortable, and the powered blowers also supplied a steady stream of cool, filtered air to the facemasks. I don’t remember now if it was a hot summer day, though; but in any case, this would seem to be the best way to keep the jobsite both safe and comfortable.

When I say “best,” however, I don’t mean “cheapest.” In the past, remodelers didn’t need to treat every demo job as a hazmat situation. And the actual EPA rules for remodelers probably don’t really reach the level of hazmat containment either; but they’re close enough that in some cases, you’d be on the fence about whether to go whole hog. At some point, professionals may as well bite the bullet and start applying full environmental containment technology.

However … what planet are we living on, where every remodel job is a hazmat site? The problem I have with this situation is, I don’t know of any rational basis for this level of response to lead paint in remodeling — at least, not across the board like this. Every contractor, on every job, applying this level of containment? Has the EPA really done its due diligence in connecting the dots between the supposed danger and their required remedy? I doubt it. The way they want this thing now, people have to plastic off rooms to install a lighting receptacle or to replace a duct register. Does this make any sense?

Here’s a report posted on the Centers for Disease Control website about a study that was done in 2006 and 2007 by officials at the New York State Department of Health, the National Center for Environmental Health, and the CDC (“Children with Elevated Blood Lead Levels Related to Home Renovation, Repair, and Painting Activities — New York State, 2006–2007,” by EM Franko, DrPH, JM Palome, New York State Dept of Health. MJ Brown, ScD, CM Kennedy, DrPH, Lead Poisoning Prevention Br, Div of Environmental Hazards and Health Effects, National Center for Environmental Health; LV Moore, PhD, EIS Officer, CDC).

With a high concentration of older housing units, New York has a particular concern for lead paint contamination. So they took a closer look. I think this study is intended to support a rule like the EPA’s RRP rule; but I don’t read it that way, myself. Look at this: according to the data reported here, of 972 children with elevated blood lead levels, RRP activities were a likely cause in 14% (139 kids).

That data in itself is a little dubious to the skeptical eye, by the way, because it’s all based on questionnaires. If remodeling occurred, the remodeling was assumed to be the cause; but it might not have been. Recently, scientists have developed a way to analyze the actual lead isotopes in the blood and compare it with lead in the environment and figure out exactly which lead got into which blood. Nothing like that was done here. But forget that — assume that part is true, and 14% of the kids with elevated blood lead levels, got them from being around remodeling work. Read on: the report then says, “Contractors performed a small percentage (6.5%) of RRP work related to elevated BLLs in New York state during 2006–2007. Resident owners or tenants performed 66% of this work.”

So if 14% of the lead poisoning was actually related to remodeling work, and if 6% of that 14% involved work done by contractors … you do the math, okay? I’m a little slow with percents. But I think … okay, let me open up Xcel. … I get … Oh, wait, I got a better idea. I’ll use Google. Cut and paste. Result: “(6%) times (14%) = 0.0084” … Yeah, I thought it might be a small number but — Point oh oh eight four. Hm.

So because some kids have elevated blood lead (the report says, “an estimated 250,000 children remain at risk for exposure to harmful lead levels in the United States”); and because to the best of our knowledge contractors are involved in zero point eight four percent of those cases (an estimated, according to Google Math — 0.0084 times 250,000 = 2100 kids); because, I say, of a maybe risk to those 2,100 kids nationwide, the EPA now is the boss of every contractor in the country. EPA is going to regulate all our jobs, because we (or, that is, some of us) caused less than one percent of their problem. What are they going to do about the 66% of the remodeling work that wasn’t by us? Well, this paper suggests, “more public outreach and education is needed to raise awareness.” Yeah. Okay.

I don’t want to jump to conclusions. You could say that I’m pushing these statistics a little too far. But what’s EPA doing? In a recent interview, a New England EPA official said that reducing the risk of lead poisoning to children would be worth “any price.” Any price? Really? Okay, why don’t we just pull out of Afghanistan and take that half a trillion dollars and spend it on lead abatement? Should we take the $20 billion BP just escrowed to pay for its oil spill, and spend that on lead in remodeling instead? Not gonna happen, of course. See, whenever somebody says something is worth paying “any price”, you know they are avoiding the hard work and discomfort of comparing the actual price to the actual value; and they are probably not bothering to even establish that there is any connection at all between the effort and the supposed goal. You also can bet that you, and not they, are the ones who get to pay “any.” “Price” means comparing and deciding. The phrase “worth any price” is nonsense. There is no such thing as “any price.” The man can’t be serious.

The CDC study does not tell us what proportion of the remodeling work on older houses in the catchment area of this analysis was done without exposing anyone to lead — jobs done by that great unknown control group of remodelers who absolutely do not need EPA to get all up in their business. My guess was, a lot of professional remodeling was done in New York in 2006 and 2007 without harming anyone, even in houses with old lead paint. In those cases, EPA’s rule accomplishes nothing other than to create cost and aggravation. Those particular pros don’t need EPA involved — they’re already good. You know, there are a lot of professional remodelers working in older houses who actually run a clean jobsite. I’ve certainly seen it. But then, I don’t work in a government lab or at some university. I go out and look at jobs.

But then on the other hand — we know that complying with EPA’s requirements takes time and costs money. We don’t know, really, whether it reduces the actual lead exposure of that small proportion of the population that is at risk from professional remodeling jobs; there is no data to prove that it does. But suppose it does cut that six percent down to, say, five percent. Suppose it cuts it down to zero, even — at the same time, it raises the cost for everyone of getting your remodel done by a pro. Well, unless EPA manages to educate the customer not just into awareness, but also into affluence, some customers are going to decide not to hire us, and they’re going to do the jobs themselves, the way they can afford to and as well as they know how — without the plastic, without the dust masks, and without the HEPA vacs. Maybe without any vacs. Maybe with a broom and a dustpan. You’re going to make that 66% DIY group, the group that does most of the damage, bigger. Blood lead levels are one thing; and, I don’t want this blog post to get way too long, but, DIY remodelers go the the emergency room a lot. DIY remodelers are a hazard in their own right. The law of unintended consequences applies to the EPA as well as to everyone else. There is no safe lunch. When people do their own work with hammers and saws, people get hurt.

But let’s stay on the narrow topic. If the nation cleans up a bunch of professional jobs that are already clean, at the “any” price of pushing some customers out of the pro market and into the DIY category to do their own dirty work — bottom line, will we in fact reduce the number of kids with elevated blood lead levels?

Nobody knows the answer to that question. And so really, as public policy, we don’t know whether this rule has “any” net benefit to the country, or not. All we know so far, is that it has a cost. Not “any” cost; “some” cost.

Politically, on the other hand, who does it benefit? I don’t know the answer to that either. I guess I could ask “anyone.” Maybe I’ll ask my new Massachusetts Senator, Scott Brown. He’s someone now.

I bet, in his heart of hearts, Scott Brown loves this rule. But that’s a topic for another blog on a different site by some other guy.


  1. I think I am going to build some type of ventilation system! Thanks for the tips Jeb!

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