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Poisoned by Paint, an Op-Ed Article

Posted on May 19, 2010

Thought this was worth sharing… (taken from The Record, written by Steve C. Gold).

IT IS SUPPOSED to be a problem of the past – children poisoned by the lead in the paint in their homes. After all, the government banned lead-based paint from homes in 1978. But the lead already on the walls stayed there. Except it didn’t. It kept getting into kids.

Our image that children become lead-poisoned because they pick and eat chips of peeling paint is dangerously incomplete. Lead paint deteriorates to dust, especially around doors and windows and where workers sand, cut or puncture painted surfaces. This dust is a major source of children’s exposure.

To reduce that exposure, the Environmental Protection Agency required contractors to contain, capture and clean up dust created during renovation, repair or painting of homes that might have lead-based paint. The so-called “RRP rule” also requires contractors to be trained and certified in these practices. The rule, phased in over two years, became fully effective last month.

At a conference on “Lead Paint Poisoning and the Law” at Rutgers Law School, I found myself thinking that the RRP rule is a very good thing, especially after a speaker described research showing how even low levels of lead can devastate a child’s developing brain. The EPA believes the rule is workable, affordable and, above all, worth it: The benefits of protecting millions of children far outweigh the cost, even in purely economic terms.

A study commissioned by New Jersey’s public advocate estimated that in this state alone, reducing blood lead levels in children under 6 could save $27 billion in social costs.

Then I talked to someone whose small business specializes in restoring historic houses.

He understands the need for environmental regulation and obeys the law. But, he wondered, did EPA understand how the costs, especially for smaller jobs, would affect contractors and homeowners? Wouldn’t some owners avoid the expense by doing work themselves or by hiring less careful contractors or even deliberate cheaters?

These questions have lessons for us as we strive, finally, to end childhood lead poisoning. The lessons also apply more generally as the United States enters the fifth decade of modern environmental law.


First, enforcement remains important. Environmental law (like most law) depends on voluntary compliance. The RRP rule will touch millions of people right where they live and right in their bank accounts. Most property owners and contractors will spend the money and do the right thing.

But violating the rule will be tempting. Doing so undetected will seem easy.

Experience with asbestos shows that there will be no shortage of people who, through ignorance or dishonesty, will break the rules. In the Eighties and Nineties, the EPA responded to widespread violations with penalties and court action. That type of aggressive enforcement of the RRP rule is essential to achieve the rule’s purposes and to protect scrupulous contractors from unfair competition by lawbreakers.

Federal and state agencies must commit the resources needed to ensure that compliance is more attractive than violation.

Second, environmental policy, whether it increases or relaxes regulation, inevitably allocates costs. Lead-based paint, applied years ago to housing that today needs renovation or repair, is costing society now. So far, much of the cost has been borne by brain-damaged children and their parents.

The rest of us have paid, too, in the form of taxpayer-financed medical care, special education and law enforcement. Requiring contractors to use lead-safe work practices will shift some of the costs to contractors and their clients, as well as to tenants in rental properties.

Worth the costs?

Are the costs worth it? It depends on how you count. It also depends on where you sit.

As a society, we could choose to spread the costs among ourselves by devoting significant government revenue to abate lead hazards before children are poisoned. Or we might look to the Superfund program as a model for addressing past pollution.

Superfund used taxes and liability to assign the costs of cleaning up a toxic legacy, wherever possible, to industries that had created and profited from it, who would spread the cost to shareholders and customers. The best aspects of that strategy might be adapted to help address the toxic legacy of lead-based paint.

This may seem like an odd time to think about using tax dollars to do anything. But refusing to think about it will not make the problem of lead-based paint go away. It will only affect who pays for the problem.

In the meantime, if you plan to renovate, follow the advice in the EPA booklet your contractor is supposed to give you: Renovate right.