This article was crafted with the help of Kevin Nolan of Nolan Painting, Inc.

Each year, National Lead Poisoning Prevention Week—a collaboration between the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and the US Department of Housing and Urban Development—calls attention to the continued need to reduce lead exposure wherever possible, especially with children. There is no safe level of lead exposure, and children are especially vulnerable to its deleterious effects. Though lead can be found throughout our environment, lead-based paint continues to be the most common high-dose source of chronic lead exposure for children.

We spoke with Kevin Nolan, CEO of Nolan Painting, about the importance of adherence to lead safety protocols and regulations. The company has been involved in the lead issue since the early 1990s, and Kevin has even testified regarding the issue before a Congressional subcommittee. Kevin’s longtime involvement and expertise regarding lead-safe practices gives him an excellent perspective on lead-safe practices and the responsibilities of EPA Lead-Safe Certified Firms, particularly concerning painting contractors.

Which Homes Have Lead Paint?

tarps around building with peeling paintLead paint was decreasingly used throughout the 1950s, 60s, and 70s, but the federal government finally outlawed its use entirely in 1978. Nearly four decades later, the threat of lead exposure through lead paint still persists—there are still millions upon millions of homes predating 1978 that could still contain lead paint, and eventually they will need to be renovated, remodeled, or even destroyed. Contractors doing work on pre-1978 homes are required to be certified by the EPA, ensuring that they are prepared to deal with lead.

Kevin estimates that about half of the jobs Nolan Painting handles involve pre-1978 homes. “We’ve gone ahead internally and made the assumption that if a house is built before 1978, it has lead. The law says that you have to make the assumption that it has lead, or you can test otherwise.” Kevin notes that testing is “a pretty involved process, and there’s lots of details and lots of liabilities involved. For instance, if I test your house, and I test one area, there may not be lead paint, but then if I test another area, there may.” Homeowners can buy kits and test themselves, but contractors are required to rely only on testing that is performed by a certified lead renovator. In recognition of that difficulty, contractors like Nolan Painting take a “better-safe-than-sorry” approach and assume that pre-1978 homes have lead paint.

What Certifications Do Contractors Need?

The EPA offers two lead safety certifications for contractors. The Renovation, Repair, and Painting (RRP) certification covers contracting work that has the potential to disturb lead-based paint, whereas the Lead Based Paint (LBP) Activity certification deals with lead inspections, risk assessments, and abatement. These certifications require ongoing training and regular recertification. Some states administer their own lead-based paint programs.

According to Kevin, Nolan Painting currently employs 37 certified renovators. He says that noncertified painters and helpers “receive three hours of training in-house by those same certified renovators. Once you become certified as a renovator, you can then teach a curriculum for the remainder of the painters, which involves explaining all the hygiene and procedures that are required.”

Dealing with Lead Paint

To the uninitiated, the presence of lead paint in a home might seem to have an easy solution—just get rid of it! No lead paint, no problem, right? While it’s a nice idea, the reality is very different. By design, paint of any kind is designed to bond to the surface it’s applied to—it’s not going to come off in a hurry.

For his company, Kevin says that removal of lead paint is “almost never the goal.” Nearly any method used to try to remove the paint, including scraping or sanding, will actually increase the risk of lead exposure by creating lead dust, which can then become airborne and contaminate the jobsite. Since removal is not really an option, “most of the procedures involved with lead-based paint involve containment and cleanup.” Rather than removal, Kevin says that the goal is lead paint encapsulation. “Basically, you remove the hazard. So we need to cover it with a good paint job, and until it peels again, it is in fact covered, protected, and not a hazard.”

Protection for Homeowners and Workers

respirator mask hanging on wallLead safety regulations are all about protection; protection not only for you and your home, but also for the employees working in your home. Kevin relates it to being a good employer, saying “you’ve got to really protect your employees, because they’re the ones that really have the biggest exposure.” If proper procedures aren’t followed, employees’ families could also be put at risk if workers are coming home with lead dust on their clothing. A reputable, responsible employer will take care of their employees as well as their clients—unnecessary lead exposure is not part of any good contractor’s growth plan.

If a contractor cannot fully contain the work area, homeowners need to move out until the work and cleanup are completed. Kevin notes that while this typically isn’t necessary, “you certainly have to keep [homeowners] out of the work area unless they’re wearing proper protection, and that might mean a respirator, gloves, and eyewear. Generally speaking, we can seal off areas and keep them safe. That’s all part of the containment.”

Challenges for Painting Contractors

Kevin says that “the biggest negative impact [of regulations] has been the inability to prep something as well as you’d like.” Regulatory restrictions on sanding mean that the kind of prep work done on newer homes isn’t always possible when dealing with pre-1978 homes. Technological advances have mitigated this problem over the years, as High Efficiency Particulate Air (HEPA) filters have allowed for equipment that can perform dustless sanding.

Kevin admits that “there’s definitely some increased cost to the regulation, but the actual procedures of containment and cleanup are basically good housekeeping. We recommend that all jobs get done that way.” He goes on to note that the regulations have also caused changes in behavior: “Dust is bad in any of its forms, and that’s what we took out of the whole law. Even if a house doesn’t have lead in it, customers don’t want any dust going all over their house, so it’s a good idea to be clean.”

Advice for Homeowners

Kevin stresses that Lead-Safe contractors have obligations to their customers: “They need to file all the paperwork, which means they need to inform you that there’s a hazard. They need to post signage, and they need to have a containment plan before they start.” He adds, “The reality is the job has to be kept very clean for it to be a Lead-Safe job.” The last thing a homeowner wants is for a contractor to “just start ripping doors off and windows off,” creating and spreading hazardous lead dust.

It’s important for homeowners living in these older homes to familiarize themselves with the law—the EPA has finite resources and can’t verify that every contractor is adhering to the established protocols every day on every job. Hiring an EPA- or state-certified contractor is the first step, but knowing what to expect can help keep you, your friends, and your loved ones safe.

This spotlight article was crafted with the help of Nolan Painting, a Painting Best Pick in Philadelphia. While we strive to provide relevant information to all homeowners, some of the material we publish may not pertain to every area. Please contact your local Best Pick companies for any further area-specific advice.