Lead certification adds to contractor burdens for little gain.

By now you’ve probably heard of the requirement that by April 22 of this year, any contractor doing repair or remodeling work on child-occupied facilities built prior to 1978 must undergo certification via an EPA-approved course on preventing the spread of lead via dust and debris. The EPA calls it their Lead Renovation, Repair and Painting Program (LRRP).

Or maybe you haven’t heard. I didn’t get wind of it until a couple of months ago and I found out before most contractors did. That’s because the EPA pretty much has relied on the trade press to do their job of informing the trades of this new regulation.

In January, I attended a Chicago Plumbing Contractors Association program on LRRP put on by public health and safety consultant Dr. Nick Peneff. He said that although the EPA sprang it on us suddenly, LRRP grew out of risk assessment and control studies that go all the way back to the 1990s. Bureaucratic inertia bandied the issue about EPA offices for more than a decade until they finally made up their minds and foisted yet another mandate on the beleaguered construction industry with little fanfare. Budget restraints affected their publicity efforts, Peneff informed.

But don’t bother pleading to the EPA how this regulation will add to your budget problems. You might as well ask government agencies to evaluate life forms on alien planets. Federal bureaucrats act reflexively to stifle productive businesses with chicken bleep that adds little benefit to the public at-large.

Let’s concede that lead is harmful, and to children most of all. And let’s concede that some buildings constructed prior to 1978 may have materials containing lead. A few questions still get begged:
    1. How severe is the threat of lead contamination from renovation dust and debris?
    2. How much will LRRP help rectify the situation?
    3. How will it be enforced?

It’s hard to say how severe the threat might be, although since it took the EPA more than a decade to develop LRRP they certainly didn’t treat it with much urgency. I asked Peneff if he could direct me to any studies documenting risk from renovation-based lead contamination. Nope. Common sense says the risk is tiny. Lead paint has been banned since the 1960s and few other construction materials are steeped with Pb. But EPA-think holds that no risk is too miniscule to ignore and no expense too great for private companies to bear in mitigating miniscule risk.

How much will this regulation help mitigate risk? This question has to be evaluated in conjunction with the next one posed, how will it be enforced?

The EPA has set a rather steep penalty for noncompliance of up to $37,500 per day, plus, in the EPA’s own words, “as well as potential private lawsuits.” That smacking sound you hear are the trial lawyers licking their chops. According to Peneff, the EPA has only three inspectors for all of Region 5 - covering Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio, Wisconsin and 35 Indian tribes. So they are relying on scare tactics much more than enforcement to achieve compliance.

Contractors with licenses and solid reputations on the line will do their utmost to comply. Trade associations like the Chicago PCA are scrambling as best they can to educate their members. But in the real world, we all know an awful lot of LRRP work, maybe the bulk of it, will be done by less fastidious contractors at the margins of legitimacy who will have figured out the odds of getting caught are infinitesimal.

LRRP requires that every jobsite falling under its guidelines have a “renovator,” i.e., jobsite team leader or supervisor, to attend a full-day class on mostly commonsense techniques to contain the spread of lead-laden dust, with a four-hour refresher every five years. According to Peneff, these classes generally cost $150-$250, depending on which part of the country you live. Plus, contractors will need to acquire one or more HEPA vacuums if they don’t already own them and factor in a little extra labor on certain jobsites. The burdens imposed by LRRP will shave margins already going bald and further replace productive activities with aggravation for little purpose.

LRRP was developed by the EPA’s Lead, Heavy Metals and Inorganics Branch. A depressing thought is how many offices they might have covering the rest of the Periodic Table and organic chemistry.