Unexceptional Ruling on Lead Paint

Homeowners seeking to do renovations on pre-1978-built homes will continue to pay extra because of the EPA’s lead paint rule — and a federal court has ruled that there will be no exceptions. On June 22, a federal court upheld the Obama administration’s elimination of “opt-out” provisions under the original regulation issued by the Bush administration. As a result, many consumers will pay high costs for little benefit in return unless Congress acts.  Senator James Inhofe (R-Okla.) and Rep. John Sullivan (R-Okla.) both have introduced legislation to restore the op-out provisions. (H.R. 5911 and S. 2148).

Under the 2008 rule, the agency required that anyone contracted to perform home remodeling and repairs must take an eight-hour course and gain certification before they could take on any projects that involve homes that might contain lead paint — those built before 1978. Before beginning a project, remodelers must also test for lead pain in the areas of the pre-1978 homes where remodeling is to take effect. If lead paint is present, the contractor must implement “lead free-work practices,” as defined by the regulation. According to EPA, these practices are designed to contain the work area to minimize dust, and ensure thorough cleanup.

Originally, the rule allowed homeowners who did not have children six years of age and younger or pregnant women living in the home to opt out of lead-safe work practices, but the Obama EPA eliminated that provision in 2010. According to EPA estimates, elimination of the opt-out rule increased regulatory costs by more than $500 million in the first year, $300 million the second year, and then more than $200 million the following years.

The National Association of Home Builders opposed the elimination of the op-out option rule because, “it substantially increases the cost of the rule without providing a corresponding benefit …NAHB is concerned that home owners will turn to unlicensed contractors, decide to do the project themselves, or defer maintenance instead of paying the additional $2,400 our members estimate is added to the cost of every project subject to the regulation.” The NAHB has recently argued its case before the D.C. Circuit Court in an attempt to reverse the op-out option rule, and the court allowed the Obama rule to stay in effect.

The costs of the rule are high for small businesses. An article in The Fiscal Times explains how one small woman-owned remodeling company in Ohio is nearly going out of business trying to cover the costs of complying with the rule: “The new rule’s detailed compliance requirements, related paperwork, and purchases of EPA required equipment added thousands of dollars to the cost of doing business and made it much harder for her [owner Kathy Faia] to compete for remodeling contracts. Business has dropped off by more than two thirds, and shehad to lay off one of her workers. ‘I’m just barely hanging on,’ she says. ‘They [the EPA] are over-regulating and sucking all of the fun out of the remodeling business.’”

While expensive and burdensome for homeowners and remodelers, EPA’s elimination of the op-out provision is unlikely to solve many significant health issues. Lead in the home can indeed be an issue for children under six exposed to lead paint on a chronic basis. Fortunately, lead paint exposures to children have diminished over the past couple of decades. Since 1997, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that the number of children with elevated blood levels found in their surveillance samples has declined from 7.61 percent to 0.83 percent by 2008. Remaining health problems exist largely in older homes that are not properly maintained, often in low-income neighborhoods where residents cannot afford proper repairs and upkeep. Requiring homeowners without any children in their home to comply with the lead rule does nothing to address that problem and likely provides zero health benefits. Moreover, regulations that make remodeling more expensive for these older homes could exacerbate problems as onerous mandates discourage repairs that would otherwise reduce lead-paint based risks.