Regulators in Salem, gardeners in Portland, lab technicians in Washington — they've all been studying toxic lead this summer. Health regulators want to add one more group to that list: building contractors.
“As many as 50 percent of all poisoning cases result from some kind of renovation activities in homes," said Perry Cabot, lead specialist in Multnomah County's Public Health Department. "That is the next big thing that’s been really tackled, but not fully and not successfully yet around the country.”
It is actively being tackled in Oregon right now. The Environmental Protection Agency is pushing Oregon to tighten the screws on construction and painting companies.
On a bright summer day in Southeast Portland, a crew with Bridgetown Painting is preparing to put fresh paint on an older home. Bridgetown owner Mikel Limon said old homes such as this require precautions that aren’t needed on newer ones and ticked off the extra steps his crews take on houses built before 1978.
“You have to test for lead; if there is evidence of lead, notify the owner," he said. "Post it out on the sidewalk. Lay down a barrier, a ground-cover barrier."
Anyone working on homes that old is supposed to follow those steps because of the potential health risks of lead exposure. Lead can impair the neurological development of children and damage the health of adults.
The state offers training and certification for professional builders and hobbyists alike. Contractors are expected to do the training and get lead licenses, if they're going to work on older homes.
Oregon’s Construction Contractors Board oversees that, but enforcement manager Stan Jessup says lots of companies don’t know the rules. He noticed that firsthand when he tried to get bids on his own older home.
“One contractor came to give me a bid, and I asked if he was lead-based paint certified because it was a pre-'78 home," Jessup said. "And he said ‘No, I don’t need to be, because I’m only disturbing the nail surface.’ Well, that’s not the case.”
Jessup is focused more on educating contractors than fining them.
But the EPA wrote to Oregon officials recently to push for tougher enforcement. Oregon regulates lead for the EPA and has to at least match federal rules.
“In this case, for the lead-based paint program, Oregon is too narrow,” said Lauris Davies, the EPA's associate director of enforcement and compliance in Seattle. “The way Oregon’s rules were structured, they could really only enforce against people who had licenses to do renovation and repair of lead-based paint.”
EPA regulators worry about a loophole that limits the penalty a contractor can pay if he or she is not licensed. There’s a similar loophole when it comes to the Oregon Health Authority’s oversight of property managers, or homeowners who want to do renovation work themselves.
Brett Sherry with OHA says there’s a limit to what investigators can do when they find unlicensed or uncertified workers making a mess of a lead paint site.
“They can right now give just one violation for not being certified, where if the rules were as stringent as EPA, they’d be able to give a penalty for not being certified, for not using proper containment, for not handling the materials properly,” Sherry said.
Licensed or certified workers go through an eight hour training, so they should know what they’re doing. But under Oregon's current system, being licensed also means they can face stiffer penalties if they make mistakes handling lead.
EPA says that double standard needs to be fixed. The differing rules for licensed and unlicensed contractors was news to Bridgetown Painting owner Mikel Limon. But he said the tougher penalties for lead-licensed companies such as his could discourage contractors from getting the license.
“It’s almost cheaper for me not to be licensed, as a renovator,” he said.
Limon is right. Recent records show that fines against Oregon contractors without lead licenses top out at $1,000. Licensed contractors found violating the lead rules received fines in the last two years as high as $9,000.
Oregon Gov. Kate Brown has written back to the EPA promising action. State officials said the Oregon Health Authority and Construction Contractors Board are looking to adopt the federal rules and have already started meeting to make that happen.
Ultimately, health officials hope the coming changes will mean fewer lead poisoning cases in Oregon. But contractors worry that potentially heavier fines may scare crews away from older homes, leaving homeowners with fewer options.