“How’s life in the new house?” I asked my friend Suzy, who recently bought a North Park bungalow.
“New?” she answered. “More like old. I’m still charmed, but ever since we decided to have a baby, I’ve been thinking about that instructional video on The Simpsons: ‘Lead Paint: Delicious But Deadly.’”
Dave Weaver, operations manager for JMR Environmental Services (619-858-7260), told me that “lead can cause a variety of health issues. Birth defects in children, mental retardation. It depends on how heavily you’re exposed. It gets into you by ingestion or inhalation. If paint is intact — not chalking, not deteriorating — it’s not really a health issue. It’s when you physically impact the paint, causing it to chip or become dust, that you have an issue.”
According to Weaver, “The City of San Diego considers anything built before 1978 to be suspect for lead. People will call us to come and do a survey if they’re thinking of remodeling an older home. Sometimes, we get called out for citations when someone does exterior work without a survey.”
Surveying a standard two- to three-bedroom home takes JMR “about two hours and costs about $350. We use an X-ray fluorescence gun — we hold it against a painted surface, and the gun will analyze all the way down to the substrate and let you know if you have unsafe levels of lead. The California Department of Health Services says that’s anything from 5000 parts per million or greater. If it’s borderline or if the results are inconclusive, we’ll send a paint chip to an accredited lab for analysis.” If your levels are unsafe, “You need to contact a certified lead-abatement contractor.”
Derek Grant of Grant Construction (619-713-5263, grantconstructioninc.net) is such a contractor. “The vast majority of what I do is called paint-film stabilization,” he explained. “That’s where we wet-sand or wet-scrape an area and then prime and paint it. We spray with a water bottle as we work, and that way everything is saturated and falls down when you remove it. That makes it easier to contain.”
Most lead paint, said Grant, “is found on windows and doors — especially old wood windows with wooden jambs. Lead paint was extremely durable, so they used it where there were lots of friction points. A lot of people just replace windows instead of removing the lead-based paint because removing the paint is enormously expensive. Typically, they need to plastic off everything, remove the windows, and strip them. And if you have an older house with peeling exterior paint, sometimes the best thing to do is to mask everything off and just stucco the house. Don’t even bother removing the lead-based paint — it’s just so labor intensive and expensive….
“The biggest thing,” he continued, “is to follow the HUD guidelines for safety requirements. I can’t tell you how many times I drive through old neighborhoods and see guys grinding old paint off a house with a belt sander. They’re taking lead-based paint peelings and pulverizing them into dust, so that the wind takes them everywhere. That’s a violation. And if the wind is over 20 miles per hour, you can’t do any kind of scraping” — even wet-scraping. “Workers need to be fully clothed, and they need to wear masks and goggles. If you’re doing the outside of a window, you have to have at least ten feet of plastic spreading out from the house. Everything has got to be covered — containment is the hardest part. It’s also expensive to dispose of the lead paint chips. You need a hazmat company for that. As a result, the cost will typically be 50 percent more than a regular paint job.”
Glenn Montague with H.M. Pitt Labs, Inc. (619-474-8548), gave me more details about those HUD guidelines. “If you want to remove from a one-square-foot area or less inside a house, you must have a drop cloth that goes ten feet in all directions. If you’re working on windows outside and doing more than a certain number of square feet, then you have to put two layers of six-millimeter polyfluorine on the inside of the window and then cover the entire room with one layer of poly. And that’s just on the inside.”
Further, after the work is finished, “You must do a triple clean. You wet-wipe, then HEPA vacuum, then wet-wipe again, working from the area furthest from the door toward the exit. You let the area set one hour so that any remaining lead can settle, then you do a visual inspection and a wipe sampling. If the area doesn’t meet certain criteria, you have to do the triple clean again. You have to follow the guidelines, or fines can be levied.”