Living With Lead's Risk : For homeowners with lead hazards, finding a qualified contractor is not easy. Conventional paint-removal methods, such as sanding and scraping, spread toxic dust.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; O'Neill is a Los Angeles free-lance writer

The ordeal of childhood lead poisoning began for Christa Hathaway and her husband, Joe Gonzales, when a routine blood test showed that their infant son had nearly enough of the metal in him to make him sick.

Frantic with concern for their baby and toddler daughter, the Santa Barbara couple tested their home for lead hazards. The results showed that dust from deteriorating paint inside the 1920s-era house contained high levels of lead.

"We began calling a bunch of people to try to figure out how to get the lead paint out," Hathaway said.

Unfortunately, there was no easy fix. Conventional paint-removal methods, such as sanding and scraping, create more toxic dust.

The family then started a search for an expert in lead-hazard removal.

But as a growing number of property owners with similar lead hazards are becoming well aware, finding a qualified abatement contractor is nearly impossible in California.

There are no state-approved certification or licensing programs for such workers and only a few programs that teach a curriculum approved by the federal Environmental Protection Agency.

Hathaway hired a man who seemed to understand lead-abatement work. His charge for the job: $10,000.

"I thought, 'Oh my God!' " she said of the cost. "But it's got to be done for the safety of my children."

However, it all backfired badly. The man she hired wasn't a contractor, as she had believed. And the people he hired as subcontractors weren't qualified.

In the end, the workers spread so much toxic lead dust in her home and yard that the property became uninhabitable.

Tests run after the workers left found highly toxic levels of lead dust everywhere. Her son's new crib showed dust carrying more than 1,100 parts per million of lead. Any level above 200 ppm on the floor and 800 ppm in window wells is considered dangerous.

The soil in her yard measured 15,000 ppm--soil with more than 1,000 ppm is classified as hazardous waste.

Finally, family members who own the house shelled out another $15,000 just to clean up the workers' mess and make the home and property livable.

Hathaway's story is a common one that illustrates just one problem with lead-hazard abatement today--while there are a growing number of policies governing the removal or mitigation of lead hazards, there is as of yet no uniform training or standards for California workers and no way to prohibit dangerous lead-abatement practices.

"There are many questions about lead-hazard reduction techniques," said Ellen Widess, executive director of Lead Safe California, a nonprofit organization that's helping shape lead-hazard policies statewide. "What's effective? How often should it be done? Who does them? That still needs to be resolved."

In this respect, lead paint hazards are often compared to asbestos.

"Those who dealt with the asbestos problem early probably spent two to three times what they would have spent if they could've waited three to four years for the market place to catch up and regulatory agencies to catch up," said Rick Warren, a San Francisco commercial property attorney also working to develop statewide policies.

Nationwide, it's estimated up to 3 million children now have elevated blood lead levels. Lead paint is considered the main source of contamination.

The condition, which shows no obvious symptoms except in the most extreme cases, can permanently damage the development of the brain and nervous systems of children. At it's worst, it can cause coma and even death.

Right now in California and nationwide, policies regarding lead-hazard abatement vary widely, from nothing at all in some communities to strict, full-abatement requirements, such as is the case in Los Angeles County.

Total abatement can be quite difficult for a homeowner to achieve.

"The cost is so high it's scary," Janet Comey, chief of the Lead Poisoning Abatement Program for the County of Los Angeles Department of Health Services, said of full abatement procedures. "I don't know what people are going to do, especially the small property owners . . . who basically are just making their monthly mortgage."

Private property owners faced with lead-abatement orders must make their own financial arrangements for the often costly work.

The only safe way to remove the paint is through sophisticated and expensive abatement methods that few contractors are familiar with. And the dearth of qualified workers means continued high prices for the specialized work.

In many instances, however, covering the paint under sheet-rock, paneling and floor tiles, or completely removing and then replacing lead-tainted objects, such as doors and window fixtures, is the most sensible and cost-efficient remedy.

"We realize that people cannot, at the drop of a hat, spend $10,000 on abatement," said Bob Schlag, head of the Lead Hazard Reduction Department of the California Department of Health Services. "There are a lot of things you can do to reduce exposure that doesn't involve removing the paint. Sometimes removing it can be more damaging than controlling it."

Schlag said routine damp mopping of hardwood floors keeps lead-dust levels down. Lead-tainted soil around the outside of the home should be covered with grass or another ground covering. Removing shoes before entering the house, routinely washing hands, which is especially important for children, and just being aware of potential sources of lead contamination also help.

"Woodwork tends to be high in lead concentration and tends to chip off," he said. "If you see any chips, pick them up immediately."

But in many other cases, a more aggressive approach is necessary but, depending upon the areas contaminated in a particular house or apartment, even encapsulation can prove costly.

Robert Jung, an engineer and a Los Angeles landlord, is doing battle with Los Angeles County officials over the costly abatement orders they've put on a rental house he owns in a downtown-adjacent, working-class neighborhood.

His house is worth only $39,000, according to Jung, but the lead-hazard work ordered by the county--which involves encapsulating all the inside and outside walls of his house and removing or replacing all the painted doors, door frames and door jambs in the four-bedroom, two-bath home--will cost $50,000.

"Let's say I had the money to fix it up, that I hit the Lotto jackpot and fix it," Jung said. "Does it guarantee that the child will be lead free? No. The answer is, there is no guarantee. Whatever you do, there is no guarantee."

And this recent lead-cleanup order is the second one he's received. A year earlier, the county, which now has about 400 such orders active throughout Los Angeles, told him to cover the lead-contaminated soil in his back yard. That cost him about $4,000. "I've been a good citizen," he said "The first time around I complied. I'm not a big-time landowner. I'm just a guy working and trying to invest something and it's going down the drain."

Jung considers the L.A. County policy "well-intended" but says its enforcement could in the end hurt families, like those living in his house. Jung said it will end up being more cost-effective for him to evict his tenants so he can raze the house and build a new one.

"If I evict them, what are they going to do?" he asked. "Each family is going to pay $500 or $600 for a one-bedroom tenement house. So it's not just me who's going to suffer."

Right now, he said, several families split the $1,050 monthly rent for his 2,500-square-foot house.

Jung believes county efforts would be better spent educating parents on the dangers of lead and how they can minimize their children's exposure to it.

Pomona resident Elizabeth Jimenez is still reeling from the financial losses she suffered in getting her house lead safe. The $25,000 abatement bill ate her entire retirement account and the college money she'd saved for her five children.

And Jimenez--who was at the same time administering care to one of her lead-poisoned twin daughters--spent days just trying to find someone she thought could do the job safely.

Like other property owners with lead-contaminated property, the only assistance Jimenez found in getting the job done was a long list of HUD guidelines detailing the do's and don'ts of lead-paint abatement.

Eventually, however, there will be more support for property owners faced with lead hazards. Title X of the Residential Lead-Based Paint Hazard Reduction Act of 1992 requires each state to develop a program to create a trained and qualified work force. California officials hope the state's program will be ready by July.

And a new state law that took effect in January requires California to comply with federal law mandating uniform training, certification and standards for lead-abatement work.

Title X also refocuses national lead efforts on short-term, interim efforts, since most strict abatement policies have proved too overwhelming for many property owners.

Gary Rochlin, owner of Venice-based Lead Tech, a lead-paint inspection and abatement firm, said interim plans can work.

Rochlin, who got his lead-paint abatement training and certification in Massachusetts, does everything from full abatement jobs to designing plans that enable clients, like Christa Hathaway, to live safely with lead paint in their homes.

After cleaning up the toxic mess in Hathaway's home, Rochlin developed a daily plan requiring that she clean areas of her house with a special vacuum designed to pick up the tiny lead-dust particles and that she wash walls and other potentially contaminated surfaces with special cleansing products.

"There's no substitute for 100% abatement, but I think in-house management is what's going to be happening," Rochlin said. "If you have a wall intact and lead paint on it, you just have to be careful. Lead paint intact is not a gremlin. It's not going to come out and grab you. It's a problem when it's disturbed, but it's also something you can live with."

But the contamination in Jimenez's home was so widespread that she had to take major steps. Her search for a contractor led her to an Oakland company that charged her $600 to test her house and provide her with a breakdown of abatement steps for every contaminated wall and window in her house.

"Then I called different contractors and showed them the guidelines," she said. "They'd tell me, 'Don't worry, we'll knock the wall out.' And I'd tell them no and explain to them that the dust created would be worse than the paint on the walls."

Finally, Jimenez happened upon a person she considered qualified to do the work, which included covering the walls and ceiling with drywall, removing all the dust-laden carpeting (shampooing doesn't remove the dust and vacuuming with a conventional vacuum only spreads it around), laying new tiles in the kitchen and removing and replacing all the wood cabinets.

"The kitchen basically had to be redone," she said.

During the two-month job she and her large family set up camp in her master bedroom.

"It caused tremendous mental stress," Jimenez said. "Five kids and a baby-sitter. We had our microwave and refrigerator in there and that's how we lived."

Meanwhile, as Jimenez followed the exacting HUD guidelines, the next-door neighbor's home was getting a face-lift by a painter who sanded the entire outside of the house.

"I asked him if he knew if it was lead paint because the dust he was creating was coming into my daughter's bedroom window," Jimenez recalled. "I called the city and found Pomona had no ordinance, that there was nothing I could do."

For now, Widess of Lead Safe California says given the practical limits of technology and the financial limits of most property owners, the top priority should be minimizing the most hazardous sources of exposure.

"Anybody concerned with this problem realizes there is not enough money in this country to remove all the lead everywhere," she said.

WHAT YOU CAN DO

"There are a lot of things you can do to reduce exposure that don't involve removing the paint. Sometimes removing it can be more damaging than controlling it." --Bob Schlag, head of the Lead Hazard Reduction Dept. of the California Dept. of Health Services.

FLOORS--Damp-mop hardwood floors to reduce lead-dust levels.

WALLS--Wash walls and other potentially contaminated surfaces with special cleansers.

CARPETS--Remove all dust-laden carpeting. Shampooing doesn't remove the dust and cleaning with a conventional vacuum only spreads the dust around.

YARD--Cover lead-tainted soil in yards with grass or another ground cover. Remove shoes before entering the house.

VACUUM--Clean floors and woodwork, especially doors, window frames and sills, with a special vacuum cleaner designed to pick up the tiny lead dust particles.

HYGIENE--Wash hands routinely. Especially important for children.

WOODWORK--Pick up any loose paint chips from painted surfaces in house.

COVER--Covering the lead paint under sheet rock, paneling or floor tiles is advised by some experts.

REMOVAL--Replacing lead-tainted elements (doors, windows, cabinets) is a sensible and cost-efficient remedy, experts say.

WHERE TO GET HELP

For more information, call the Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention Program at the L.A. County Department of Health Services at (800) 524-5323.

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