Subscribe to TIC

Op-ed: Lead Dust Removal

A call for action

Two recent events inspired me to write this article. First, I began using—and decided to review—a vacuum system that employed HEPA (High-Efficiency Particle Air) filtration. The second event was a class I took on safe practices when dealing with lead-based paint. All the stars seemed to align, as I just had a prospective client contact me about a major remodel in a house built circa 1910. I have the training, I have a client, all I need to do is follow the prescriptive path set forth by the governing agency. It is here that the story begins to derail.

First, a disclaimer:

I am not a safety official. I am not a code enforcer. I am not a certified trainer. I am not a lawyer. I am not a tool manufacturer, nor do I work for one. I am a small general contractor. I am also a Lead Certified Renovator with the State of Washington, and I carry an OSHA 10 card—that’s it. Please take the following as one man’s opinion.

In the course materials for the class I took, you learn all sorts of ways to deal with dust that is—or may be—contaminated with lead. Regardless of what’s in it, no customer likes to see dust flying around their house. Conscientious contractors are probably already doing most, if not all, that is required by this mandate to remove lead-contaminated dust safely. After all, we all know that a happy customer usually means more work, referrals, or both, which is the formula for success in my book.

The EPA lets you employ many methods, from plastic sheeting, to “clean rooms,” to dry scraping or wet sanding. They actually give you a lot of options, which is nice. They tell you what kind of respirator to wear, they give you options for lead contamination testing on-site, or sending in samples to an independent lab, or a lab certified by the EPA; and they cover potential liabilities of each option. So far, so good, right? But it took over five hours to get to the part in the material I am really interested in: How to collect dust!

Sanding—especially with power tools—is, by far, the biggest contributor to airborne dust and, subsequently, lead particles.

(Source: EPA Renovate Right brochure)

As we all know, it’s a lot more effective to collect dust at the source than to just let the chips fall where they may (pun intended) and take care of it afterwards. Wood dust in-and-of itself is carcinogenic. Why put yourself or others at risk? The EPA specifies:

“HEPA vacuum means a vacuum cleaner which has been designed with a high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filter as the last filtration stage. A HEPA filter is a filter that is capable of capturing particles of 0.3 microns with 99.97% efficiency. The vacuum cleaner must be designed so that all the air drawn into the machine is expelled through the HEPA filter with none of the air leaking past it.” – 40 CRF 745.83.

I guess that seems pretty straight-forward, but the last seven words are the bone of contention. I’ve spoken to tool representatives and product developers, and they all come down to the same thing: It is basically impossible to guarantee that ZERO air passes through some other point. Vibration, negative air pressure, and/or heat from the unit can all potentially cause some form of leakage—even around sealed gaskets and the like. Now, the amount of leakage may very well be on a submicroscopic level, but, the last time I checked, that still means you have leakage, which means you do not meet the required criteria. This is made even more frustrating by the fact that there is no current testing method to certify that HEPA vacs meet EPA standards—NONE. ABLE Safety Consulting, a national safety-training group, states:

“[Keeping] all air absorbed into the filtered equipment and going across with no leakage is a tough measure . . . . Placing a HEPA filter in a vacuum does trivial good if the air goes around the filter. Over the years, analysis indicates that most vacuums wouldn’t meet this EPA standard. Unluckily, there’s no sanctioned process to test HEPA vacuums to find whether they conform to EPA’s definition. Without an approved method, an EPA Certified Renovator has no way of recognizing whether the vacuum they’re using fulfills the federal definition or not” [emphasis added]. [Source:]

Yes, you read that correctly.

You may think to yourself that I’m splitting hairs, and, in a certain sense, I am. The mandate states that we are to use a filter that captures particles all the way down to .3 microns. To put this into perspective, a human hair is 10 microns. We are talking about a potential loss (and I say potential for a reason) that is on a ratio of about 1:10,000. So if I had a thousand bucks, that would be like me losing ten cents. I think I could handle that. My concern goes more to the “black or white” answer. “Is it certified or not?” If so, great, I’ll take it! If not, fine, I’ll go find one that is.

But, the problem is, we are not given those criteria. It’s like saying: go to work, but don’t drive too fast. “Okay.” You jump in the truck and head down the road. After a while you notice there are no speed limit signs. How can you know you’re not going too fast? You make good judgments, you do your best to drive at what you think is a safe speed, but then a co-worker passes you. Is he being unsafe or are you going too slowly? There is no barometer to tell you otherwise.

I spoke to a tool manufacturer who told me, “We are not certified by the EPA to remove lead dust, but if you ever want to work for NASA and apply coatings to the outside of the shuttle, you can use our system for your prep. Why? They have a standard and we meet it.”

The “what ifs” here make me nervous. I suspect that I’m not the only one. My money says there’s someone at the EPA who is nervous about setting the standard because: what if someone gets sick? I feel that this is not a good enough reason to delay action.

What if some contractors do nothing because they feel there is no set standard? Isn’t the governing agency doing everyone a disservice by sitting idle? I don’t expect the government to tell me what to use; I DO expect them to say: If your equipment passes this test, you’re good to go.

Let’s be very clear: lead is a serious issue and an even bigger problem than recently thought. As a parent of two young boys—one almost 4 years old, and one 9 months—who live in a house built in 1930 (the lead heyday) I am seriously concerned about what exists, where it exists, what is safely contained, and what is a hazard. Lead causes serious neurological damage, blood disease, and other terrible side effects. These effects are amplified in children. If you are working in residences built pre-1978, please be careful. I will not cite potential for exposure, but it is real.

I hope it is obvious that we, as contractors, are not looking to shirk our responsibility; but we do need the tools and the criteria to follow so that we can do our jobs safely and effectively—for the protection of our clients, the environment, and ourselves.


30 Responses to “Op-ed: Lead Dust Removal”

  1. Fong

    Thanks Matt for brining this to light. As an engineer who’s worked for many government regulated industries, I share in your frustration of the liability avoiding “non-standard” stance of specifications. If someone in the EPA is reading this, here are a few suggestions (the opinion of one other guy)

    1. Create different levels (be it numbers, letters, or your favorite precious metals) so that we may at least compare tool performance relative to one another even if no single mfg or tool ever meets your current 100% leak free criteria. 100% is btw unreasonable, albeit possible.
    2. If you set such a high standard, there needs to be some measurable test to verify it. Though I know it’s very difficult to test for air leaks around the seal of a filter element. It IS possible to test the sealing element in isolation. If it holds the full pressure behind it without the filter element, then you could guarantee nothing is leaking pass the seal when the HEPA element is in place. Write it down, make it happen..
    3. This last one is for the toolmakers. You don’t need to wait for some governing party to tell you what to do. Get together as a group, collaborate, and develop your own standard testing method and criteria so that we, as consumers, can make informed decisions about your products. This may cause some controversy and some would rather not reveal a possibly inferiority of their product’s performance but think of the bigger picture of why you do what you do. It’s not just to make money, it’s to ensure the health and well being of your customers who use them. Governing agencies are filled with red tape and you all are brilliant tool designers and engineers. It would not be unprecedented for the governing agencies to eventually adopt your industry standard as the test standard.

    • Matt Follett

      I’m with you all the way on #1&2. Performance of the system is key. Like you said, 100% is possible, but we aren’t talking about open heart surgery. We mean an amount of loss that is considered within safe tolerance. I also like your idea of testing the seals which seems as critical as using a HEPA filter in the first place. I wouldn’t even mind some stipulation that said you had to wipe down the seals every time you opened the machine or changed a filter. Easy.

      I do think a standard testing system setup by toolmakers is a great idea. I think their problem is liability as well. Plus, they didn’t make the standard, someone else did. I wouldn’t tell you to trim a window & when you ask me how I want it done say, “I don’t know, you figure it out.” I can feel my blood starting to boil even as I type this. How can you say ‘comply’ and not tell me how? Argh! And as far as standard testing procedures go, I know some exist. Aviation, healthcare, manufacturing — all have some form of test or allowable percentage of airborne contaminates. We just need to know where we fall on the scale.

  2. bigbob

    Could someone give us a perspective on the harm actually DONE you children under 12? I began to do some homework before the seminars and found that the only listing on the internet were attorneys seeking retainer for litigation!! I have not found anyone who said that there was no harm with lead, but I have also not found anyone who could tell me with supporting evidence what that harm looks like AND what is the actually number of cases reporting harm? I maintain this whole program is one many schemes initiated in order to gain more control by the EPA. I think serious trades people are serious workers, and take their clients’ wellbeing seriously. Thus, in spite of this training, those who did NOT take their clients’ health seriously are NOW going to take seriously?? In my heart, I don’t think so. So, I am wondering about harm and just how much there IS, NOT how much there could be. Any one know???

    • Bill Thomas

      I recently had my yearly physical and was talking to the doctor about the lead issue. I was informed that the current testing does indeed show higher levels of lead in some youth. Especially in the lower income areas, where the older homes are rented or purchased but not improved. These children are showing learning problems. I suggest that you talk to some doctors and hear what they have to say.. While I think the EPA overreacts, in this regard there is a just reason.

      • bigbob

        Thanks. I still don’t see hard evidence that warrants the all out assault that has been launched by the EPA. The assumption here is that NOTHING has been done to abate lead poisoning. I dare say the actual number of cases is probably fewer than something like auto accidents. And yet it is turning our industry upside down. I have little confidence that this elevation in panic is warranted, and furthermore, I sincerely doubt if there will be any measurable effects. Emphasis on MEASURABLE.

        • Gramps

          Hey, Big Bob!

          Why can’t you just cooperate with the experts?? You can be rest assured that they are looking out for your best interests. Please consider the following reasons why you should be glad for these latest regulations:
          – You have probably been way too cautious in trying to make your customers safe; now you can get by using these new minimum standards, and take the extra cash you save to the bank. And now, if they have any problems, you can avoid any lawsuits by saying that you did the minimum to protect them!
          – Now you will be able to actually charge more for the job – you can just tell them that these regulations cost more to comply with!
          – You will be glad that the extra fees you pay will be going into creating more jobs for people who would be otherwise hard pressed to support themselves, what with all that messy competition out there!
          – Even though you may resent these first few extra regulations, you will soon realize that they really do protect your ability to get more jobs. You will be protected from all those younger newcomers who will feel overwhelmed by the paperwork!
          – After a few more years, when you realize that the regulations are really meaningless, you will be in fat city and won’t want to rock the boat to reveal what you have learned. And by then there will be a whole new round of regulations that will keep your mind from thinking too much about how the last ones were useless!

          So come on and join in – don’t spoil the party! Your participation is needed to make this whole system work!

          • Matt Follett

            My only reply to this is “Gramps, PLEASE WRITE MORE!! :)

          • Ray Habenicht

            I second Matt’s opinion. Consider that Wisconsin adopted it’s own rules for lead-safe remodeling and made them more stringent than the EPA’s 1 mg/cm2. At 0.7mg/cm2 (alternately 600ppm instead of EPA’s 5,000ppm) there is no commercially available kit that is OK’d to test at that level, so we must either use a third party to verify no lead OR just assume that there is and follow RRP (and WI DHS 163) guidelines. Nice, eh?

  3. Mike Hawkins

    Good article Matt.
    As I get older, I get very tired of the government intrusion in our lives. For the time being, I no longer work on houses built prior to 1978. I think the EPA has way too much power and I don’t plan in partaking in their paranoia. I think lead is a problem if you don’t maintain a house and the kids are playing in the paint flakes on the floor. Other than that, I choose not to believe them. Call me old fashioned or whatever, it’s my choice. For all the work I have done in older houses the last 35 years, according to them, I should be dead by now. For the record, I feel fine.

    • Matt Follett

      Containment of what exists within the walls was my BIG concern. You’re right, if you’re not inhaling it (as in dust in the air) or ingesting it (as in chewing on your window sills) you should be just fine. Seems like everything will kill you these days. Dust in the air, stuff in the water, too much sunshine or lack thereof, where does the list end? I will say that while I don’t think that lead is the end of the world, it is worth exercising due caution. I know I would feel terrible if, because of my negligence, one of my clients became ill. I want to know what the potential hazards are and how best to deal with them. That’s all.

  4. Steve Christopher

    Nice article Matt.
    It adds to the fact that this law was fabricated with any input from those governed by it.
    Besides being near impossible for a solo contract like me to comply with, who do I hand the bagged items to outside the hot zone ?
    Another issue, there is a 10 year old child in the house, you test and get a positive lead reading. You comply with all RRP procedures. After you’re finished, the HO sees an ad from a PI lawyer on ” Lead Poisoning”. The child’s blood work shows elevated levels (of freaking course, they’ve lived in the house 10 years)
    Do I need to say what’s next ?
    How about appliance delivery. Do they need to test and be certified to remove the front door to get a fridge in the house ?
    I’m all for keeping people safe. I feel while this was 10 years in court, they should have done some real world investigation to see about the practicality of implementation. I pass on any small lead jobs and use a certified demo contractor for kitchens and baths.

  5. Bruce Marvel

    I too agree that all dust needs to be contained anyway. I feel that our government has just implemented a “scare factor” for contractors, causing some of us to simply walk away from some really nice renovations, or to price them so high to cover the costs involved to meet the requirements that we end up losing the work to some contractor who is not complying. What scares me is the potential that is now definitely here for my customer to come back to me 10 years from now with a hungry attorney and wipe out a business that has taken us 30 years to build.

  6. Neal Schwabauer

    Guys, small suggestion. Join some kind of builders association. One that works with your state on standards. One that is tied to a national association.

    Bob, I have worked a lot in the inner city. The evidence is there, along with the crack kids. You’ll just have to learn to tell the difference.
    Additionally, no one has mentioned the adults that have been affected, & the children they produce. When you live in poverty all your life, & that’s all you see, you stay.

    • Matt Follett

      I’m with you on the builder’s assoc Neal. In Washington, along with a handful of other states, the local government is running the show. We are no longer subject to the EPA under this standard; the governing body is actually the Dept of Commerce (I know, go figure). They have basically transferred the EPA standards across and made them their own. The same class it taught up front but the contractor registry cost has dropped DRASTICALLY. I think $300 is the national cost and Washington is $25. There’s a plus, but the big thing is we only contend with state government and not the EPA. I don’t want to turn this into an EPA bashing conversation, but I will say that I think though they were formed with a proper purpose they seem to have run amuck in their own power and bureaucracy. I still don’t have a definitive statement from my local government entity either but so far I feel more comfortable dealing with them. We’ll see if the feeling lasts.

  7. Steve Christopher

    One more “thing”
    From what I understand, NJ now requires ALL workers to be certified, not just the “person in charge”

    • Matt Follett

      That’s “interesting”. If you have confirmation of that, please feel free to post it. In fact, if anyone has a facet that applies to their local municipality, go ahead and post it. I didn’t have time to go through all the different local requirements or changes. I for one would be interested in hearing facts like these.

      Thanx Steve

    • Ray Menard

      If that is truly the case, you’ve got to know that such rules have nothing to do with increased consumer protection but rather about increasing revenue streams for the state. Yup, I ‘m that cynical.

  8. Kevin Corse

    It is my understanding of the law that you must use a EPA approved vacuum, not a vacuum that meets EPA requirments. There is a published list of approved machines.

    • Matt Follett

      Where? In all seriousness, please post link if you can dig it up.

  9. Neil Cooper

    Good article. To the lawyer part. As a small remodeling contractor I have my clients test their children before I start the job.

    • Ray Menard

      A very wise & simple precaution. Thanks for that insight – but of course!

    • Matt Follett

      Of all the ideas I’ve heard this is probably the ideal way of handling it, but man you have tread lightly when suggesting it.

      I wish the general public knew half of the pains we go through to protect all the parties involved when we do our work. Essentially you are now an educator because your potential client had no idea what RRP is and you must now explain it to them in a way that is professional while not scaring the bugeezs out of them. A solid client will hopefully see that you are looking out for their best interests whether you get the job or not.

      Have your clients been receptive to this idea?

  10. J. Watson

    Has anyone estimated what is the up front per job cost of the lead-safe compliance measures? When you consider cost of plastic sheeting and trash bags for disposal of debris (Oh, man, I feel stupid bringing my re-usable grocery bags to the market now!), the time and money involved in buying and using test kits, documenting and keeping files of results from tests in different areas in the house to be disturbed, and the actual time involved in final wipe-down or wipe-downs, what?—15%?
    Nobody’s buying now! As it stands, if I feel good about my bid numbers, I know I’ve got to go back and start cutting until I’m afraid they might be accepted.

    Average middle-class people are going to flat-out stop hiring contractors or at least licensed ones.

    OK, nothing new there!

    What really burns me up is that the detrimental effects of lead have been known for centuries. Australia banned the use of lead-based paints before World War I, but why here, in the land of the free, were they not banned ’til 1978?

    Wait— I think I know:

    So, our supposed leaders failed to act on irrefutable scientific proof for over 70 years, and look who’s left to clean up the mess left by industry!

    I’m less pissed about the EPA pressing for clean-up; I’m not into shooting the messenger. I do think that the costs associated with the new lead-safe rules should not be borne by the building trades alone but be subsidized by the folks that fought so hard to keep producing known poisons for use in our homes.

    We could put to good use those test records we’ve got to create and keep to send them the bill.


  11. billyj

    Matt – thanks for the great article. I appreciate your no-nonsense approach to a very important subject. I say important in that it will affect our lives. Not so much in the physical harm that may or may not ever happen, rather, in the liability we will assume every time we enter into a contract.

    It should be acknowledged that just ‘living’ will create harmful results. Every day we live, we are faced with all forms of dangers that could, or will, result in shorter life spans. But how far should we go in order to make sure absolutely no one is ever harmed? Does 100% mean that absolutely nothing is going to harm the person?

    Every time a regulatory agency mandates something, they pull numbers out of thin air. Reasonable never enters into the equation. By saying 100%, it absolves those responsible for mandating said dictates from any possible repercussions. Zero is always a good number to require. Not that it is feasible, warranted, or even needed. Rather, it is a very easy number to remember.

    Before long, it will probably be the number of contractors who will actually be working.

    • Matt Follett

      Well, well put Billy. I’m all for reasonable precautions, but I emphasize reasonable. I’m all for the legal process (I better be, my mother-in-law is a lawyer) but the idea of having years of work building a business dismantled in one swing of a hammer (ya know, the Judge’s) for something you may or may not have done is daunting or at least worth losing a bit sleep over.

      I’m certainly not cynical of the process, but I think we have to be realistic about the potential for lawsuit, and really that is the crux of this entire discussion. It’s not the scientific facts about lead or the number of confirmed cases; it’s about “what happens if someone gets a wild hair and comes after me with a legal team in tow”. We can and do take precautions every single day but there is a breaking point within everything and everyone. Some may last longer than others but if you continue to add pressure without concession, you can crush anything. We as professionals need to work with governing agencies – whomever they may be – but they in turn must do likewise.

      • BillyJ

        Matt – Unless something happens in the 11th hour, tomorrow (July 15) will begin the next phase of EPA requirements. If the EPA goes through with it’s Clearance and Clearance Testing Requirements (per May 6 Federal Register, page number 25047), every Firm will need to not only follow RRP guidelines, but will also require that, “After the cleaning required by 40 CFR745.8 5(a)(5) has been performed, a certified inspector, certified risk assessor, or certified dust sampling technician would be required to perform a visual inspection to ensure that the work area is free of visible dust, debris or residue.”

        The EPA said it should only cost and additional $160 / room.

        Now add markup.

        BTW – other regulations will also kick in that will include commercial work.

  12. WoodMiller

    I worked as a health care provider for many years, and this lead “standard” reminds me of the OSHA standards process for tuberculosis. OSHA asked the National Institutes of Health “How many TB Bacterium does it take to become infected?” The answer: 1. OSHA wanted all health care workers to wear self contained breathing apparatus to work with TB patients. The problem? Not only was this totally impractical and prohibitively expensive, but patients don’t wear a sign around their neck saying they have TB. So you would have to wear it for ALL patients in order to have the desired effect. Apparently, the Medical Community has a little more clout than the Building Industry, and the regulations were replaced with a NIOSH approved respirator standard that manufacturers could submit their masks to. Now, when you buy disposable respirators, the box will tell you that they meet that standard. BTW – it’s the same respirator standard the EPA requires for asbestos workers…

  13. Scott

    Interesting lead factoid…Most of the red lipstick sold today contains lead. However the manufaturers are not required to disclose the ingredients. Google lead in lipstick.


Leave a Reply

Please note: Your first comment will be held for moderation/review by our staff before it appears. After you have one comment approved, all of your subsequent comments will appear immediately. Read our comment policy for more information.