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Lack of lead tests sends contractors to lab

By Sean Ryan

Wisconsin’s lead-safe work rules are forcing some contractors to make new — and sometimes difficult — choices.

Builders who remodel houses built before 1978 in most cases must either assume the residences contain lead paint and follow the new lead-safe rules or hire a lab or inspector to test the houses. No kits are available for Wisconsin contractors to do their own testing.

“We’re going to do what we need to do to follow the rules as they stand,” said Diane Ausavich, cleaning division administrator for Carl Krueger Construction Inc., Milwaukee. “But it sure would be nice if the state and the EPA would work with us right now and develop the test kits.”

The state rules apply to renovation projects on houses built before 1978 where more than 6 square feet of interior wall or floor space is disturbed. If tests show the lead content in paint is lower than the state standards, contractors need not follow the more costly lead-safe renovation rules. Without tests, contractors must assume the rules apply to the project.

Builders such as Ausavich see the test kits making life easier, but they might not be used as often as expected, said Shelley Bruce, asbestos and lead certification supervisor for the Wisconsin Department of Health Services. Homeowners decide whether the tests are done, she said, and some will not want them. If a test shows lead paint exists in a house, homeowners must disclose that when trying to sell the house, she said.

“Some homeowners won’t want to know,” Bruce said, “Because it creates obligations for the future.”

Wisconsin adopted a stricter lead-content standard than the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and DHS had to use the state law, Bruce said. She said even if Wisconsin had adopted the EPA standard, kits approved by the EPA can only be used on metal and wood surfaces, so contractors would still need consultants to test plaster and drywall.

Without home testing kits, contractors must hire of one of 56 state-certified companies to either test samples in a lab or use a hand-held x-ray fluorescence machine that can detect lead in walls.

For Ausavich, the lab tests mean crews must cut one-inch-square chunks of wall out of the rooms the company will renovate. This usually requires crews to pull up floorboards and cut chunks out of the bottom of walls so the holes are concealed. Samples are sent to a lab that, for $25 per sample, can get test results within 24 hours, said Ausavich, president of the Milwaukee Chapter of the National Association of the Remodeling Industry.

“For us, it’s kind of a matter of course,” Ausavich said. “It’s part of our procedures to have these things tested, and if we don’t have to go through these procedures and save the homeowners some money, that’s the route weíre going to take.”

David Pekel, president of Pekel Construction & Remodeling Inc., Wauwatosa, said he would need about 10 samples to demolish a wall, for example. He said he is skipping the tests, unless one is requested by the homeowner, and adopting the lead-safe work practices when working in any house built before 1978.

Pekel said he does not know how much more it will cost to follow the lead regulations on each project because the federal and state rules just took effect Thursday. He said his company has spent $8,000 for equipment needed to satisfy the safety requirements.

Pekel questioned why the state would put the lead rules into effect without available test kits for contractors.

“It would be great to have the test kits,” Pekel said, “why we don’t is a head-scratcher.”

Bruce said the rules let the state approve kits if a company develops them. But, she said, the test kits are a marginal part of the state rules, which are focused on making contractors adopt safer renovation practices.

Ausavich said a company inevitably will create a test kit that contractors can use in Wisconsin, but it may take a few years. Until then, she said, her company must cope with the added time and cost of using a lab.

“It’s going to give us an answer right away,” Ausavich said of the testing kits, “and for us, the issue right now is that it is more labor-intensive.”

2 comments

  1. Pekel questioned why the state would put the lead rules into effect without available test kits for contractors.

    As usual, unfunded mandates, cart before the horse.

  2. The latest EPA proposal requires dust sampling and lab testing clearance. The EPA estimates $160 per room in testing cost. In WI testing can only be done by state certified risk assessors and the cost is about $240 per room. So you replace a damaged door and the costs triple. All kitchen cabinet and window replacements in pre 1978 homes will fall under this rule as will most door and window repairs and replacements.

    While bad for property owners, it will be worse for contractors. If I had to give post work dust lab results to my clients I darn well better also pay another $240 and get pre work testing to show the levels prior to my arrival, lest I be sued out of business. This will also basically kill the Cash for Caulkers program.

    Realtors should also have concerns as all of these test results will have to be disclosed when accepting an offer under the prior disclosure rules. Plus many Realtors are investment property owners as well.

    From the Federal Register (Link and attached PDF below) #2 and 4 are the gotchas

    1) Dust wipe testing must be performed after all renovations involving:

    (i) Use of a heat gun at temperatures below 1,100 degrees Fahrenheit.
    (ii) Removal or replacement of window or door frames.
    (iii) Scraping 60 ft [2] or more of painted surfaces.
    (iv) Removing more than 40 ft [2] of trim, molding, cabinets, or other fixtures.

    A link to the proposed rule in the Federal Register is at:
    http://edocket.access.gpo.gov/2010/pdf/2010-10102.pdf

    There is a 60 day comment period

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