Compromise is in order for lead paint law

Strong statement, this: “Guilford County’s lead-related regulations, as currently worded and enforced, are imminent threats to the preservation of some of our most treasured places and make de facto criminals of their owners.”  But if you’ll take the time to read our ordinance on lead paint poisoning prevention (.doc), it is absolutely true.

I’ve spoken to several government staffers about the threat such programs pose for historical properties, and they all agree that regulatory efforts toward removing every microgram of lead from old buildings are way too heavy-handed.  But they also say they can’t speak up about about how current abatement efforts are like swatting mosquitos with a baseball bat because they would likely be called ‘baby killers’ for questioning any efforts at protecting the health of children.

Here’s a hypothetical; one of my neighbors came up with it and it just might put a finer point on the situation…

Let’s say that I took my five-year-old child to visit the Governor’s Mansion in Raleigh.  (Built in 1891, I can assure you that lead paint resides with our state’s top executive)  Let’s further say that the child decided the thing to do while we visited would be to take a bite out of the governor’s painted woodwork. 

Knowing the potential dangers inherent with gnawing on old, painted woodwork, I subsequently took my child to the doctor who found elevated levels of lead in his system.  If, after an investigation, it was determined that the wood chewing incident was indeed the cause of lead poisoning in my child, the Governor’s Mansion would, by law, have to be abandoned by EVERYONE until an abatement plan was adopted and executed …at an exorbitant, taxpayer borne, cost.   (That is, of course, if the mansion was located in Guilford County.)

I believe some compromise between lead abatement and historic preservation is called for, and opined as much for today’s N&R column. 

 ***************************************

12/5/07 

In 2005, Guilford County adopted an ordinance that states, “…no person who owns property shall maintain such property that is a lead hazard to children…� However well intended, our “Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention Regulations� have made probable criminals of anyone who owns historic property; reason being: most historic structures are chocked full of lead paint that children could ingest.

As for me and mine, after we moved to the Aycock Historic District and were blessed with three children, we already knew about lead paint in our house.  We took simple, common sense steps to safeguard our brood: we undertook a good vacuuming every week or so and taught our kids not to gnaw on the woodwork.  It worked beautifully and required no governmental oversight.

However, if we hadn’t taken those simple precautions and been governed by current regulations, we could have lost our home if a child – any child under the age of six -developed an “elevated blood lead level� due to old paint in our house.

Think I’m exaggerating? A similar scenario is currently playing out down the street.  A friend purchased a 1920’s Bungalow as an investment some years ago.  The house was recently painted and remodeled and she rented it for $1400 per month to a very nice couple, with whom we became friends.  The tenant wife was a talented potter who set up kilns in the basement. 

Long story short:  After about a year, the couple adopted a baby.  Upon reaching toddlerhood, their little boy was found to have an elevated level of lead in his system.  Our health department was notified and an inspector dispatched to test the property for lead, which, not surprisingly, was found.

Lead was detected in all of the usual places: windows, old woodwork, exterior siding, front porch, and garage.  But the highest levels were discovered in the basement where the tenant’s hand-painted ceramics operation had been an ongoing concern until just before the inspectors arrived.  (FYI – Many ceramic glazes contain high concentrations of lead.)

No matter. The Health Department declared the house unsafe for occupation until an abatement plan was approved and executed.  Even the owner, who has no children, is forbidden to move into in her own house.

The inspector assured my friend that rectifying the problem would be simple enough; just replace the old doors and windows, cover the house with vinyl and tear down the old garage.  Problem is, because the house is in a locally designated historic district, all of those actions are governed by Greensboro’s Historic District Guidelines and all go against the grain of historic preservation.

When the landlord contacted an abatement contractor qualified to undertake the mandated work, they provided a $40,000 estimate.  It was suggested that it might make financial sense to tear down the 2500 sq ft home and start over, but the demolition of sturdy structures is pretty much verboten within historic districts.

So she’s stuck between competing governmental regulations.  One set designed to protect children; the other designed to preserve our architecture.  Guess which one holds the trump card?

Now, don’t get me wrong; I’m not taking lightly the seriousness of lead poisoning and I am quite aware that many older properties – mainly lower income rental properties – pose a clear hazard to the health of children.  But Guilford County’s lead related regulations, as currently worded and enforced, are imminent threats to the preservation of some of our most treasured places and make de-facto criminals of their owners.

Perhaps some regulatory compromise is in order.

This entry was posted in Aycock Neighborhood, Double Hung, Guilford Politics, My N&R columns, Preservation. Bookmark the permalink. Both comments and trackbacks are currently closed.

14 Comments

  1. justin smith
    Posted December 5, 2007 at 10:33 am | Permalink

    wow. scary. for the homeowners AND renters.

    So how do move this along?

  2. Posted December 5, 2007 at 10:42 am | Permalink

    As is too often the case when politricksters with no WORKING knowledge of a problem decide to “solve” said problem.

    “I tip my hat to the new revolution, take a bow to the new constitution. Funny, things get changed all around. Pick up my guitar…… We don’t get fooled again…” The Who

  3. Posted December 5, 2007 at 11:34 am | Permalink

    First, Justin, we need to have consensus that a problem exists. I don’t think that the property ownes such as you and I need convincing, but the bur the guv’ment will be more problematic.

    The way I see it, the solution is in education of renters and owners and informed consent.

    Lead is the new asbestos, which will likely be followed by fiberglass in litigation (many of the same properties as asbestos). Attorneys and regulators have whipped everyone into a frenzy over this and are doing everything they can to protect us from ourselves.

    I don’t want it, nor need it.

  4. Posted December 5, 2007 at 12:49 pm | Permalink

    If you but look around David you will find many laws that contradict one another. It really just plain comes down to too many laws and no sunset or overview on any of them. Once a law or ordinance is on the books it is there to stay and then another is added and then another is added to that. If you check the ordinances of a city even the size of Greensboro you would find most people break one law or another on a routine basis. What to do? How about chucking them all and starting all over? Possible? Of course not since anarchy will rule until we get some laws back in place. But a good review of laws on the books wouldn’t be all that intrusive and could be done on a local basis at least. But then you run into the conflict of state and national laws. (Sigh) Complaining about the laws then is something like spitting in the wind. BB

  5. meblogin
    Posted December 6, 2007 at 8:29 am | Permalink

    David,

    Do you know the outcome between the two groups…historical vs. health?

    Interesting issues that need help.
    Perhaps our new city council will address this problem.

    Is there a state or federal fund set up to help homeowners? (similar to the one for oil tank problems)

    I read recently that fiberglass insulation has been reclassified as not being carcinogenic to humans.
    My guess would be due to the micro size of the asbestos fiber as compared to the strand size of insulation.

  6. Posted December 6, 2007 at 9:19 am | Permalink

    Dear Mr. Hoggard,
    I read with interest your column in Wednesday’s News and Record. I am sorry for the trouble your friend is having with her house but I feel the need to address an issue with you, on your statement that “many ceramic glazes contain lead�.

    My husband and I own and operate Whynot Pottery in the Seagrove area, just down the road from Greensboro.
    As you know, there are many professional potters in our area making a living producing and selling pottery to the public for everyday use. This would include handmade pottery designed to be used for presenting and preparing food. In our area it would be rare to find that any one using lead in a glaze and, if they are doing so, it would be noted and used on non-food items.

    We are also regulated through random testing by the FDA, testing for lead in glazes. We have been tested ourselves and no lead was found in any of our glazes. We know there is no lead in them because we mix these glazes ourselves as do most professionals.
    Dear Mr. Hoggard,
    I read with interest your column in Wednesday’s News and Record. I am sorry for the trouble your friend is having with her house but I feel the need to address an issue with you, on your statement that “many ceramic glazes contain lead�.

    My husband and I own and operate Whynot Pottery in the Seagrove area, just down the road from Greensboro.
    As you know, there are many professional potters in our area making a living producing and selling pottery to the public for everyday use. This would include handmade pottery designed to be used for presenting and preparing food. In our area it would be rare to find that any one using lead in a glaze and, if they are doing so, it would be noted and used on non-food items.

    We are also regulated through random testing by the FDA, testing for lead in glazes. We have been tested ourselves and no lead was found in any of our glazes. We know there is no lead in them because we mix these glazes ourselves as do most professionals.

    We spend a lot of time dispelling the myth that all glazes have lead in them. This is a statement which could have a direct impact on our sales in Seagrove. I would appreciate if you would follow up on this.

    I would have to ask the house owner why she would allow someone to operate a business out of a residential zoned area.
    There are a lot of “hobby� potters who think it is alright to fire kilns in their basements or garages. This could be, and apparently has been a disaster. There are so many health and safety issues involved with the ceramic process that it is unconscionable that anyone would expose their family to that kind of risk in their own home let alone a house they do not own. Apart from the stress on home wiring, the fumes from even unglazed clay can be noxious. Homeowners insurance likely does not cover fires or health issues. A kiln firing a glaze to a mature temperature could reach 2200 degrees.

    I hope that your friend can work out her problem, but I would hate to see one created for the professional potters by your statement on lead in glazes.

    Meredith Heywood
    Whynot Pottery
    1013 Fork Creek Mill Rd
    Seagrove, NC 27341
    http://www.whynotpottery.com

  7. Posted December 6, 2007 at 9:21 am | Permalink

    looks like i need a little help in posting my letter! sorry

  8. Posted December 6, 2007 at 10:59 am | Permalink

    The Guilford County Department of Public Health adopted the Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention Regulations in October of 2005. Currently, we are the only county in North Carolina to have local regulations that are more stringent than the state concerning lead-based paint. Our program mirrors the recent reports that suggest lower levels of lead in children are just as damaging as higher levels.

    A recent study in Environmental Health Perspectives, which is published by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, determined that the largest drop in IQ points happened when blood lead levels were between 5ug/dl and 9ug/dl. NC Department of Environmental Resources, Children’s Environmental Health Branch, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and Harvard University will be conducting an evaluation of our program in January 2008 to determinehe efficacy of our regulations. The state will also use the evaluation to determine possible adoption of our local regulations into state regulations concerning lead-based paint. We look forward to this partnership and are confident that the evaluation will show the difference we are making in the lives of children in Guilford County. Lead-based paint poisoning often referred to as the silent epidemic. There are no specific symptoms of lead poisoning. Lead is everywhere.

    One has only to turn on the television to hear of another toy recall this holiday season to know where lead can be found. Children are exposed to lead through a variety of sources like paint, pottery, toys, mini blinds, cosmetics, medicines, and food. When a lead investigation is needed due to an elevated blood level in a child, all of these sources are investigated. Homes that were built before 1978 may have lead-based paint. It is a Federal law that any landlord or property owner of a home built before 1978 disclose any known lead hazards before the rental or selling of a home. We make every effort to work with owners and tenants who are dealing with lead-based paint in their homes.

    The City of Greensboro was recently awarded a three million dollar grant from Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to address lead-based paint hazards. The City of High Point also received monies forma state-awarded HUD grant addressing lead-based paint hazards. We have a strong partnership with both municipalities with a common goal to eliminate lead-based paints hazards in Guilford County. Our Children’s Environmental Health section strives to protect and promote the health and well-being of all children in Guilford County. We think our local lead regulations provide the framework to achieve our goals.
    Tobin Shepherd
    Program Manager
    Environmental Health Program
    Guilford Co. Dept. of Public Health

  9. Posted December 7, 2007 at 8:58 am | Permalink

    It seems as if a compromise would be pretty simple to work out. When I lived in an apartment over on Fifth Ave, I had to sign a disclaimer stating that I was aware the property had lead paint, and that I would not, in essence, knaw on the woodwork. I did not have a child back then. But when I moved in to my current duplex in Lake Daniel, I had a similar disclaimer to sign, along with an acknowledgement that I knew the dangers of lead based paint to children.

    It seems like a simple enough solution to make sure that parents are aware of the dangers, and if they sign the disclaimer, that would be enough to protect the property owners. Of course, there are some unscrupulous property owners out there that would ruin it for everyone I am sure.

  10. RH
    Posted December 7, 2007 at 11:34 am | Permalink

    Tobin Shepherd said:

    “We have a strong partnership with both municipalities with a common goal to eliminate lead-based paints hazards in Guilford County.”

    Tobin, please clarify this statement. Is it, therefore, the stated intention of the Guilford County Department of Public Health to condemn all pre-1978 built structures? ..and how can you prove the exact cause of any case of lead poisoning? How do you know if a kid was not in the basement ingesting his dad’s lead fishing weights?

    Nobody seems to have issue with the potential hazzards of lead poisoning, in children, in adults or even in our pets. And most intelligent, caring people want to take precautions to prevent the further exposure to lead, asbestos, shallow regulations, etc. But the current program is obviously not practical from many standpoints including protection of our children if their parents can’t afford a place to live. What are your recommendations for a reasonable solution for everyone, including those of us who have enough sense to keep our children from gnawing on the woodwork or from harmful exposures of all other types? Additionally, how can the same ones of us be protected from those careless folks who don’t watch out for such hazzards, which include many issues besides lead, for their children?

    ..oh and yes, I’m sure it won’t be long before some crackpot claims his aggressive Rotweiller ingested lead paint chips and that was the reason it attacked someone, possibly could have been a child. ‘More reason to bulldoze the historic neighborhoods…..you know, for the children….and our pets.

    Tobin, please help us here….but not too much.

    RH

  11. Posted December 7, 2007 at 11:36 am | Permalink

    Thanks for joining in, Tobin.

    All of that is great information which is aimed at justifying Guilford’s lead ordinance. But I’m not arguing against the need to protect children.

    What about my friend’s predicament? And potentially, mine… and my neighbors’.

    My house, as I said in the column, has lead paint in and on it just like hers, as does every house in my neighborhood. Why is it that I’m able to occupy mine but she has been denied ANY use of her property.

    My house is every bit the lead hazard as hers… right? So is the Governor’s Mansion as noted in my post above.

    In that regard, the ordinance just seems like overkill to me.

  12. Posted December 10, 2007 at 12:08 pm | Permalink

    Much debate over the issue of lead paint in historic housese has taken place nationally over the past decade, and in that time, compromises have been developed that achieve both the goals of health and safety of children as well as historic preservation. These compromises have been outlined by federal government, through the National Park Service, US Department of Interior through a briefing titled “Appropriate Methods for Reducing Lead-Paint Hazards in Historic Housing.” I find this a very useful tool in understanding the dangers of lead, and how to approach this issue sensibly. You can learn more about these suggestions to lead issues by federal government at their website:

    http://www.nps.gov/history/hps/tps/briefs/brief37.htm

  13. Tobin Shepherd
    Posted December 12, 2007 at 7:03 am | Permalink

    The Governor’s Mansion is not a likely scenerio as lead poisoning is cumulative. On the average, a child has to ingest 1/10 of a square inch (about the size of the head of a pencil eraser) of paint per day for 15-30 days to have an elevated blood lead level. That’s not much paint but it is a lot of overnight stays at the Mansion.

    Any pre-1978 house has the potential to have lead-based paint. Historical neighborhoods, non-historical houses and apartments have this potential. Today, many children live in pre-1978 homes and are not considered to have an elevated blood lead level.

    The threshold for government intervention with this ordinance is when a child has, by blood confirmation, a blood lead level of 10 micrograms per deciliter and higher. Hence, your neighbor’s situation verse your situation.

    The choice of remediation method (which can be, for example, maintenance standard, abatement or no occupancy) is up to the owner. Staff advise the owner(s) as to the various means to remediate known lead hazards. Some methods are less expensive than others. The owner develops a plan, staff approve it and the owner executes the plan. Then, staff followup to determine compliance with the plan. The ordinance has no provision to condemn housing and/or to evict occupants.

    There is help available to homeowners. One of our partners, the City of Greensboro, offers a Lead Safe Housing Program. See link ( http://www.greensboro-nc.gov/departments/hcd/housing/lead/ ). There is a threshold for assistance that’s based on income levels of owner or tenant(s). For higher levels of incomes, I believe there are tax credits for rehabilitation of historical properties.

    Prevention is the key: owners/tenants doing the simple housekeeping steps that you have articulated in your blog, proper nutrition for a child, handwashing and adequate consumer warnings, per Federal Disclosure Law, by owners/rental agents to renters, and sellers to buyers. A little prevention goes a long way.

    BTW, short web address to the local lead webpage is: http://lead.gheh.org.

    Tobin

  14. Posted December 12, 2007 at 7:07 am | Permalink

    Good info, Tobin. Thanks.

    Since, as you say, “The ordinance has no provision to condemn housing and/or to evict occupants.”, why is it that my friend tells me she is forbidden to occupy her property herself or rent it out to others (with the proper disclosures)?

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  2. By Hogg’s Blog » Good conversations on lead paint on December 7, 2007 at 12:04 pm

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