Get the Lead Out

Debra Gelbart


Gary Farrar, Randy Fornoff and Carl Jones are painting contractors who live in three different sections of the country—the East, the Southwest, and America’s midsection. But they have something in common in addition to their profession: they all understand how critical it is to abide by the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Lead Renovation, Repair and Painting (RRP) Rule, which has been in effect for four years.

“I took a training course just as the Rule was taking effect,” said Fornoff, owner of MTS Painting and Property Services in Mesa, Arizona, a suburb of Phoenix. “We’re a full-service painting company and we knew we had to be properly prepared to comply with the Rule.” Fornoff now teaches classes on the RRP Rule.

“I wouldn’t dream of not following the Rule,” said Jones, owner of Over the Pond Painting & Windows in Overland Park, Kansas. “My whole business is my name and my integrity.”

“I got certified to learn about the dangers of lead paint to children,” said Farrar, a retired director of a Habitat for Humanity location who now remodels historic homes in Lynchburg, Virginia. “And now that I understand those dangers, I worry about painters who don’t comply with the Rule bringing lead dust that lands on their work clothes home to their young children.”


A Housing and Urban Development (HUD) national survey of lead and allergens in housing, published in 2011, estimated that 37 million permanently occupied housing units in the U.S.—nearly 35% of all housing units—contain some lead-based paint that was applied before the residential use of such paint was banned in 1978. And according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, childhood lead poisoning is the No. 1 environmental health risk facing children in industrialized countries today. In the U.S., more than three million children age 6 and younger—one out of every six children—already have toxic levels of lead in their bodies.


The RRP Rule was a long time in the making. Painting contractors know that it requires firms that disturb lead-based paint in homes, child care facilities and preschools built before 1978 to become certified by the EPA (or an EPA-authorized entity), use certified renovators who are trained by EPA-approved training providers, and follow lead-safe work practices.

In 1992, Congress passed the Residential Lead-Based Paint Hazard Reduction Act (Section 1018 of Title X), directing the EPA to develop regulations under the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) and create standards for conducting lead-based paint activities.

A four-phase study of work activities that may create a lead exposure hazard concluded in March 1999. Analysis of Phase III data indicated that general residential renovation and repair is associated with an increased risk of elevated blood-lead levels in children. Phase III also showed that some renovation/repair activities—including paint removal by heat gun, open flame, chemical stripper, and surface preparation— were associated with a higher frequency of elevated blood-lead in children.

The EPA concluded from this study that sanding, scraping, cutting, window replacement and demolition can produce or release large quantities of lead and may be associated with elevated blood-lead levels.

The EPA signed the RRP Rule on April 22, 2008 and it took effect April 22, 2010. The RRP Rule impacts many construction trades in addition to painters—including window installers, wood-floor refinishers, plumbers, carpenters and electricians.

Some terminology is used interchangeably among contractors but is not always accurate. Some use the terms ‘lead abatement’ or ‘lead removal’ when talking about the RRP Rule. “The EPA was likely trying to avoid actual ‘abatement’ requirements when adopting the Rule,” Fornoff explained, “because abatement is much harder to do. ‘Abatement’ means to ‘render ineffective’ but that’s not what the Rule accomplishes, necessarily. The Rule is designed to minimize the dangers from lead paint during renovation, not necessarily eliminate them. And you technically aren’t ‘encapsulating’ the lead paint, either. An encapsulant is a special abatement product that’s not required by the EPA to comply with the Rule.”


The RRP Rule presents painting contractors with a dilemma. They can take an approved training course to get certified; follow the specifications of the RRP Rule whenever lead paint is encountered on a job; and recover their on-the-job costs by charging 30% more than before the RRP Rule took effect. Or, they can subcontract a contractor qualified to perform RRP-compliant work. The third alternative that’s never recommended: ignore the RRP Rule and risk the health and safety of customers—and risk getting cited by the EPA.

Painting contractors may not hear about enforcement actions often, but consider this: in May of last year alone, the EPA announced 17 enforcement actions for violations of the RRP Rule that included 14 administrative settlements assessing civil penalties of up to $23,000 per incident.

The enforcement actions addressed serious violations of the RRP Rule, including actions where the contractor failed to obtain certification prior to performing or offering to perform renovation activities on pre-1978 homes. Other alleged violations included failure to follow the lead-safe work practices critical to reducing exposure to lead-paint hazards. “One thing the EPA wants to make sure of is that all occupants of a structure with lead paint—in an apartment building, for example—are properly notified ahead of time before RRP begins,” Fornoff said. “Failure to notify is a big concern.”

“Professional painters are supposed to follow the requirements of the Rule,” Jones said. “It’s also my responsibility to educate homeowners about the residual effects of lead exposure and how lead paint can harm kids, especially.”


According to the EPA, lead can affect almost every organ and system in the body. Children 6 years old and younger are most susceptible to the effects of lead, but pregnant women and their unborn children are also vulnerable.

In children, the EPA says, the primary concentration of lead toxicity is in the nervous system. Very low levels of lead in children’s blood can result in permanent brain and nervous system damage, leading to behavior and learning problems, a diminished IQ, and hearing problems.

The EPA also points out that 80% of childhood lead poisoning occurs at home. Many homeowners, the agency says, are unaware of the hazards associated with lead-based paint and unknowingly poison their own children by not following safe work practices during renovation or by not safely repainting. Homes built before 1950 contain the most lead paint, according to the EPA.

EPA attempts to identify communities with a significant lead paint concentration using criteria such as incidences of childhood lead poisonings, lower incomes, and older housing inventories. In general, areas of the country with older housing would be expected to have more lead-paint issues.

Farrar said nearly every historical home he’s worked on in Lynchburg contains lead paint. Jones said when he lived in Missouri, the majority of homes he bid on contained lead paint, but in Kansas 85% of the homes he has come in contact with do not contain lead paint. Fornoff, in the suburban Southwest, said less than 1% of his company’s projects involve lead paint.

Even if a pre-1978 structure’s paint is not peeling, chipping or cracking, the EPA says it can be a problem if it’s found on surfaces that get a lot of wear and tear, that children can chew, or even where children spend time. That includes homes, schools, day care centers and other places. Lead paint is dangerous when being machine-stripped or sanded.

All of the contractors we spoke with said they know of other contractors who have not been RRP-certified and who do not take proper precautions when repainting a lead-paint residential exterior or interior. “A lot of contractors may think that if children don’t live in a particular house with lead paint, the Rule isn’t necessary,” Farrar said. “But there are probably kids in the neighborhood and lead paint flakes can become airborne from improper sanding and scraping or can get into the water system in the area—or even be carried away by the rain. The flakes also can become part of the soil if proper protective sheeting isn’t used. All painting contractors need to understand the ramifications of not caring about the Rule. They’ve got to be concerned.”


According to the RRP Rule, if a homeowner or day care facility owner indicates the building was constructed before 1978, you must assume that lead paint is present. If you don’t test for lead, you must assume the entire structure contains lead paint, Fornoff explained. But even if you test, the results only matter legally if you are EPA-certified to test under the RRP Rule.

“But the EPA is reasonable with the Rule,” Fornoff said. “If work to be performed involves a minimal area, the Rule does not apply.” He said if work is to be performed on an interior area of six square feet or less per room (for, say, a plumbing repair), RRP requirements do not apply, including protective sheeting, hand scraping and washing, HEPA vacuuming, head-to-toe personal protective equipment (hazard suits), and proper disposal of debris. For exteriors, the RRP Rule doesn’t apply unless the impacted area is more than 20 square feet per building. “If you’ve got a single fascia board that needs replacing, you wouldn’t have to worry about the Rule,” Fornoff said.

The minimal area exception does not apply, however, to windows, Fornoff said. “Lead dust can be most concentrated in the trim items,” he explained. “Where the windows rub against the frames, that’s where the dust is. If you’re working on a window, no matter how small, the Rule applies.” It’s important to keep in mind, he said, that the amount of lead dust that could fit into an artificial sweetener packet “can poison a huge room.”


Above all, say the contractors we spoke with, don’t ignore the RRP Rule and take on the job of renovating or repairing a lead-paint surface if you’re not qualified to do so. There are ways to find a contractor certified to comply with the RRP Rule who will then return the repainting portion of the job to you, Fornoff said.

Painters not certified for RRP can use the search feature on the EPA’s website to look for qualified contractors in their area. Or, they can get in touch with their local Painting and Decorating Contractors of America (PDCA) chapter for names and contact information for qualified contractors:

“If a house with lead paint isn’t correctly prepped,” Jones said, “the lead in old paint can pull through several coats of new paint. Repainted older homes where the original paint has not been properly treated will continue to leach lead. The house has to be sealed with a triple-thick latex-based primer, or you can’t stop lead from leaching through.”


Lead paint—whether managed by the contractor who initially bids on a job or by someone else qualified to renovate in the presence of this environmental hazard—almost always presents a challenge for painting contractors. It makes repainting or renovating more expensive and it can easily be mishandled by an inexperienced or unethical contractor. But the good news is that one house or structure at a time, the now well-known threats from lead paint can be reduced by professionals with the knowledge, training and integrity to, as Fornoff said, “help homeowners protect children against a potentially devastating impact on their health.”

The RRP Rule, “offers homeowners peace of mind, knowing that a licensed professional who follows the requirements is giving them a healthier home,” Jones said.


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