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: http://www.lead-safe-certified.com/rrp/hepa-vacuum/]
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.