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Living With Lead's Risk : For homeowners with lead hazards, finding a qualified contractor is not easy. Conventional paint-removal methods, such as sanding and scraping, spread toxic dust.

Old Paint, Young Victims. SECOND OF TWO PARTS

March 27, 1994|Stephanie O'Neill | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; O'Neill is a Los Angeles free-lance writer

The ordeal of childhood lead poisoning began for Christa Hathaway and her husband, Joe Gonzales, when a routine blood test showed that their infant son had nearly enough of the metal in him to make him sick.

Frantic with concern for their baby and toddler daughter, the Santa Barbara couple tested their home for lead hazards. The results showed that dust from deteriorating paint inside the 1920s-era house contained high levels of lead.

"We began calling a bunch of people to try to figure out how to get the lead paint out," Hathaway said.

Unfortunately, there was no easy fix. Conventional paint-removal methods, such as sanding and scraping, create more toxic dust.

The family then started a search for an expert in lead-hazard removal.

But as a growing number of property owners with similar lead hazards are becoming well aware, finding a qualified abatement contractor is nearly impossible in California.

There are no state-approved certification or licensing programs for such workers and only a few programs that teach a curriculum approved by the federal Environmental Protection Agency.

Hathaway hired a man who seemed to understand lead-abatement work. His charge for the job: $10,000.

"I thought, 'Oh my God!' " she said of the cost. "But it's got to be done for the safety of my children."

However, it all backfired badly. The man she hired wasn't a contractor, as she had believed. And the people he hired as subcontractors weren't qualified.

In the end, the workers spread so much toxic lead dust in her home and yard that the property became uninhabitable.

Tests run after the workers left found highly toxic levels of lead dust everywhere. Her son's new crib showed dust carrying more than 1,100 parts per million of lead. Any level above 200 ppm on the floor and 800 ppm in window wells is considered dangerous.

The soil in her yard measured 15,000 ppm--soil with more than 1,000 ppm is classified as hazardous waste.

Finally, family members who own the house shelled out another $15,000 just to clean up the workers' mess and make the home and property livable.

Hathaway's story is a common one that illustrates just one problem with lead-hazard abatement today--while there are a growing number of policies governing the removal or mitigation of lead hazards, there is as of yet no uniform training or standards for California workers and no way to prohibit dangerous lead-abatement practices.

"There are many questions about lead-hazard reduction techniques," said Ellen Widess, executive director of Lead Safe California, a nonprofit organization that's helping shape lead-hazard policies statewide. "What's effective? How often should it be done? Who does them? That still needs to be resolved."

In this respect, lead paint hazards are often compared to asbestos.

"Those who dealt with the asbestos problem early probably spent two to three times what they would have spent if they could've waited three to four years for the market place to catch up and regulatory agencies to catch up," said Rick Warren, a San Francisco commercial property attorney also working to develop statewide policies.

Nationwide, it's estimated up to 3 million children now have elevated blood lead levels. Lead paint is considered the main source of contamination.

The condition, which shows no obvious symptoms except in the most extreme cases, can permanently damage the development of the brain and nervous systems of children. At it's worst, it can cause coma and even death.

Right now in California and nationwide, policies regarding lead-hazard abatement vary widely, from nothing at all in some communities to strict, full-abatement requirements, such as is the case in Los Angeles County.

Total abatement can be quite difficult for a homeowner to achieve.

"The cost is so high it's scary," Janet Comey, chief of the Lead Poisoning Abatement Program for the County of Los Angeles Department of Health Services, said of full abatement procedures. "I don't know what people are going to do, especially the small property owners . . . who basically are just making their monthly mortgage."

Private property owners faced with lead-abatement orders must make their own financial arrangements for the often costly work.

The only safe way to remove the paint is through sophisticated and expensive abatement methods that few contractors are familiar with. And the dearth of qualified workers means continued high prices for the specialized work.

In many instances, however, covering the paint under sheet-rock, paneling and floor tiles, or completely removing and then replacing lead-tainted objects, such as doors and window fixtures, is the most sensible and cost-efficient remedy.

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