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Law Takes Aim at Preventing Lead-Paint Hazards

Old Paint, Young Victims. SECOND OF TWO PARTS

March 27, 1994|STEPHANIE O'NEILL | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The dangers of lead poisoning, especially to young children, have long been documented. Until now, however, most prevention efforts have been haphazard or ineffective at lowering the number of poisoned children.

But a new federal law adopted in the fall of 1992 is changing the strategies for dealing with the lead problem nationwide.

The Residential Lead-Based Paint Hazard Reduction Act of 1992, or Title X as it's called, will touch just about everyone and is considered the most comprehensive lead poisoning prevention legislation in decades.

Title X imposes its requirements on federally owned, insured and assisted housing. But its far-reaching requirements will create a much-needed infrastructure for battling the lead-based paint hazards that will affect private property owners as well.

One of the most noticeable aspects of the law is its preventive approach to the lead problem. Most policies regulating lead hazards in housing require a child to become sick before action is taken. Title X's focus is to find and fix the hazard before a child becomes ill.

At the same time, Title X also takes into account the impracticalities of targeting all lead-based paint for removal, as it exists in much of the nation's residential housing.

"Half the U.S. housing stock has lead paint," said Don Ryan, executive director of the non-profit Alliance to End Childhood Lead Poisoning in Washington. "If you say you don't want lead paint in there, half of us are going to be living in tents."

Moreover, total elimination of lead-based paint hazards can be extremely costly and financially debilitating for property owners. As a result, many orders for cleanup in communities with strict lead policies have backfired, as landlords and other property owners who are unable to finance the work were forced to abandon the property.

To encourage more lead clean-up, Title X shifts the focus from total abatement to "lead hazard reduction," which includes interim measures as well as more thorough abatement of six specific lead-based-paint hazards defined in the law.

"Title X changed the ballgame on what will have to be abated," said Ron Morony, deputy director of the Office of Lead-Based Paint Abatement and Poisoning Prevention for the department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). "One of its major thrusts is that it's going to get together a good, reliable infrastructure. Right now, in L.A., if have a poisoned child it's not clear how you can find a reliable contractor."

And that's the case in most communities throughout the United States. Yet, nationwide, 57 million privately owned homes and apartments built before 1980 contain lead paint, according to a 1990 HUD study. Of those, HUD officials say, 3.8 million are considered a "priority hazard" because young children live in them and because they contain lead paint that's peeling or deteriorating.

Under California's mandatory disclosure law, a seller aware that lead paint exists in a home, must disclose that information. But a Title X provision that takes effect in October, 1995, will take that several steps further. That provision will require that prospective buyers or tenants of a pre-1978 housing unit receive a warning and a pamphlet on lead hazards as well as a disclosure. Buyers will have 10 days to arrange for a risk assessment.

Gary Rochlin, owner of Venice-based Lead Tech, a lead paint inspection and abatement firm said even now, before the more stringent disclosure and warning requirements, lead paint has become a priority to some buyers who are aware of the 1995 requirements.

"We've literally knocked two homes out of escrow because of lead," he said. "You can buy a home with lead in it, but you are going to be ultimately responsible for it."

Next month the Environmental Protection Agency is required to create a "model state program" so states can develop their own lead-based paint programs that will include contractor training, certification and licensing programs based on national standards.

Gov. Wilson signed legislation in October, 1993, that will put California in compliance with Title X and bring about the development of a viable lead abatement industry here, so those saddled with lead-burdened houses and apartments in the future will be able to find qualified contractors to do the work.

Until then, property owners are on their own. "It's a scary situation right now because we don't have regulations," said Debra Carlton, vice president of research for the 23,000-member California Apartment Assn. "Lead paint for our 1994 agenda is at the top of the list."

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