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Lead is a naturally occurring element found in the earth’s crust and one of the first metals used by humans. It is also one of the most dangerous and has been accountable for diseases ranging from high blood pressure to nerve disorders, mental problems and kidney damage.
It’s prevalence in everything from batteries to solder, fishing weights to ceramics made it a common companion in every day life and consequently, the cause of the first recorded occupational disease.
Its pervasiveness in household items from paint to toys meant that lead exposure and poisoning was common throughout human history, even dating as far back as the Roman Empire when it was used to sweeten wine. Some historians say that lead poisoning was responsible for the decline and fall of the Roman Empire.
The Centers For Disease Control And Prevention (CDC) states that there is “no safe level of lead in blood” and that when dealing with lead the best option is to eliminate it from living and working environments completely.
If lead is so dangerous, why then is it still used today?
Lead does have its benefits, and though they come at a high price, lead is often the best tool for some jobs. In paint it brightens some colors, it’s durable, fast drying and inexpensive compared to other types of paints. It resists mildew, which makes it great for wood surfaces or other surfaces likely to get wet. It’s anti-corrosive and sticks well with far less likelihood of flaking off. It also resists the color-dimming effects of ultraviolet light, which makes it perfect for painting those double yellow lines down the middle of the road.
All those reasons are why it’s still used in paints today, not only for roads and parking space dividers but also on bridges, tanks, heavy equipment and other large structures and projects.
Fortunately, it’s also controlled by The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which has enacted a number of regulations to limit the use of lead, reduce lead exposure and mitigate its harmful effects. Through lead inspection, risk assessment and controlled removal when it poses a threat, the EPA has made working and living conditions safer for all involved.
Some states enact their own regulations but the state of New York defers to the EPA. That means if your building comes under scrutiny or if you’re undertaking a renovation project, you’ll be subject to the requirements of the EPA.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) specifies that before construction can begin on a renovation project, workers must understand their risks, including their potential exposure to lead.
This is particularly relevant to renovation projects in state facilities including prisons, correctional facilities, psychiatric facilities, armories, hospitals, office buildings and other facilities that tend to be older and more likely to contain lead paint and need renovations.
Even after a renovation project is completed and lead abatement work is done, a lead inspector is required to take dust samples to validate that the environment is safe and lead-free.
Practically speaking, that means you will need to hire a trained lead inspector and an independent EPA-certified abatement contractor. Not only must the individual person performing the lead inspection be licensed and trained but the company that the individual works for must also be licensed.
Since the burden of liability and safety falls on each property owner or manager individually, it pays to understand how regulation affects you and what to look for when it comes to risk assessment, inspection and abatement.
Remember, in the state of New York an abatement professional must be EPA-certified, so inquiring about this is a good place to start. Both supervisors and workers must be certified and should use abatement methods sanctioned by state health codes.
Discuss a plan for lead abatement that includes how the work will be performed and what safety precautions will be put into place to prevent lead dust and debris from spreading.
Understanding the different methods of lead abatement can help.
Enclosure is the simplest process and means covering a dangerous element, like a wall covered in lead-based paint, with paneling, plasterboard, gypsum board or sheetrock. This is only effective if the renovation project will not disturb the element in question and if the element is strong enough to support the enclosure.
Encapsulation involves sealing a contaminated element to prevent exposure to the lead beneath. While this is the most cost-effective, it also tends to be the least effective at mitigating lead risk and it only works when an area won’t be disturbed or exposed to weather because the sealant can wear away over time.
Removal is exactly what it sounds like – removing an element such as a door or window that contains lead paint and replacing it with one that does not. This is necessary in larger scale renovation projects where entire buildings, sections of buildings or elements must be torn down, which will result in disturbing lead-painted surfaces and releasing lead dust into the air, soil and even groundwater.
Before you hire an abatement professional, discuss your options and the methods your contractor recommends. Some removal methods are explicitly prohibited by the EPA. Dry scraping and sanding lead paint, for example, are methods that should never be included in your abatement plan.
Removing lead paint with an open-flame gas torch is also prohibited, along with any grinding or sanding methods done without HEPA filtration.
If you know your lead abatement plan ahead of time, you can educate yourself and look for problem areas that should be addressed before work begins – or caution you against working with a particular vendor if safety requirements aren’t being met.
As per EPA requirements, the company that you hire for lead inspection must be independent of the one you hire for abatement. Inquire before you begin inspections.
The inspector should also use a New York State-approved laboratory to analyze dust samples.
It may also help to understand how inspectors test for lead. One way to test is by taking chip samples of the paint from various surfaces in the room. This can be costly, time consuming and require numerous samples to ensure that no surface or part of a surface is overlooked. It is also the most invasive and can require extensive repairs after testing is completed.
A second method involves x-ray fluorescence (XRF) in which a handheld device is used to instantly determine whether a surface tests positive, negative or inconclusive for lead paint. In the case of an inconclusive result, a laboratory test would be required.
In the state of New York, lead inspection with XRF requires that the inspecting company hold a radioactive materials license.
Before you hire a lead inspector, discuss your options for inspections and ensure that your prospective vendor can explain the methods and reasons to you.
Nobody knows who discovered lead but it’s been mined for well over 6,000 years. It has been used in everything from glassware to cosmetics and although its harmful effects have been recognized and documented for thousands of years, lead was not banned for consumer use until as late as the 1970s.
Since then, the EPA and various regulators have worked to protect the population from lead poisoning as a result of contaminated food, water, soil, household products and even air.
If you’re tackling a renovation project and your property was built or renovated prior to 1970, a lead inspection prior to renovation is the right place to start. If lead is discovered, a proper abatement plan can mitigate risks and a post-renovation inspection can ensure that the property is safely habitable.
A little bit of education when it comes to understanding risk and removal can help you choose the right team to assist and result in a safe and successful project.
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