How Do New Lead Laws Affect Your Bottom Line?

In 2010, new certification requirements triggered an uproar with construction workers. Here's where things stand now
February 09, 2012

In 2010, contractors screamed and yelled when a new federal law required them to obtain certification to do renovation work on houses built before 1978, the year lead-based paint was banned. Some predicted the law would cause tens of thousands of house painters, handymen, window installers and other small businessmen to fail, and others to raise prices just to survive.

Nearly two years later, this is how things look:

  • The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimated that more than 200,000 firms and about 250,000 individuals needed certification, but it’s unclear how many bothered to get it.
  • Contractors who received the certification charged customers more because their costs increased.
  • Some consumers balked at paying more and hired un-certified contractors while some agreed to pay more
    because of fears about the dangers of lead, which can cause everything from stomach pain, nausea and headaches to seizures, nervous system problems and developmental issues that lead to learning disorders.
  • Builders still don’t like the law. In November 2011, the Washington, D.C. Circuit Court heard oral arguments from the National Association of Home Builders and the EPA about the EPA’s decision to keep contractors
    from opting out of the law.

A 2011 survey of 1,500 or so contractors by the National Association of the Remodeling Industry found that about three-quarters of them don’t do everything the law requires. The release of the survey results triggered some emotional comments from contractors, most of whom replied anonymously on a Wall Street Journal blog.

A window installer from Arkansas lamented that he is being punished “by trying to do the right thing.”

“My window jobs have dropped 50 percent because of added cost,” he said. “None my customers even know about this law…We are under hard times and the government just hammers us with stupid laws we can’t afford to pay…Someone please HELP.”

A California contractor who repairs termite- and water-damaged wood admitted he never received the required certification. He said the company’s annual revenue is $3 million.

"If I was to comply with this rule,” he wrote, “it would require hiring new levels of management to oversee compliance. We have opted to take our chances and not comply. This will give us an advantage to get work over those that do comply. These kind of laws will only make small business people think twice about staying in business or even going into business, they will most likely find solitude in working for others. Another American dream killer."

The federal law hasn’t had the predicted dire consequences for everyone.

House painter Bob Trent, owner of Poquoson Painting, in southeast Virginia, said when he paints houses built before 1978, “Chances are, they have been painted over many, many times so that the lead paint is buried—or it’s gone—and we don’t come close to disturbing it.”

Lead-based paint in good condition doesn’t have to be removed, but if it is removed the wrong way—if the dust isn’t contained—it increases dangers. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that as many as 300,000 children have blood-lead levels above safe limits, mostly due to exposure to lead-based paint. Even unborn children can be harmed if their mothers breathe in dust while they’re pregnant.

Trent said he understands the dangers of lead and always alerts customers if he thinks lead-based paint is near the surface. He gives them information about it and its potential dangers, as the law requires.

About three-quarters of all housing built before 1978—about 38 million housing units in all—contain lead-based paint. But contractors don't have to obey the law if the houses were built after 1978, if work disturbs less than
six square feet indoors and less than 20 square feet outdoors and if houses test lead free by a certified risk assessor, lead inspector or renovator.

Contractors in several states, including Wisconsin, North Carolina, Iowa, Utah, Mississippi, Rhode Island, Oregon and Kansas also have to comply with similar state laws.

Mark Di Vincenzo is a journalist with 24 years of experience and a New York Times best-selling author. Mark blogs via Contently.com.