Loopholes: Lead scare in Scottsville

Washington, DC, residents are grappling with the news that many of the city's water pipes are made of lead– and that the water authority allegedly has been aware of that fact for several years without telling its clients.

Lead has been elementa non grata in the United States since the mid-'70s, when it was phased out of gasoline. Lead-based paint was banned in 1978.

There are plenty of regulations on the books about lead, but a woman in Scottsville discovered that getting answers to her concerns about possible lead contamination and finding someone to enforce those regs isn't easy.

Dena Radley lives on Valley Road next door to the Stinson House, which is owned by Charlottesville developer Oliver Kuttner. The house dates from 1916, according to county property records.

On April 7, Radley noticed painters scraping the garage next door, which she is convinced has lead-based paint. "When you're dealing with historic buildings, that's the first thing you look at," she says.

"My concern is that this gets into the ground water and town sewer system," she says, "and it's going to be in my yard."

Radley was appalled to see workers scraping without wearing masks. She started calling government agencies.

The county health department told her it couldn't do anything unless an infant or child's health was involved, Radley relates.

Nor does county code regulate lead-based paint, other than to say it can't be used in new construction. "The building code does not require removal of lead paint, nor does it tell you how to dispose of it," says Albemarle building official Jay Schlothauer.

The Virginia Property Maintenance Code says that paint must be maintained. "We can only enforce that if we get a complaint from a tenant," says Schlothauer. "If it's flaking and chipped, it must be repaired– but the code doesn't tell how to do that."

Radley called the Department of Environmental Quality, which has no jurisdiction over the scraping of paint, according to its spokesman, Bill Hayden. He suggested Radley try the health department.

She called the Scottsville town administrator, Barry Clark.

"My hands are tied because there's no regulation," says Clark. "This is a town of old houses. People scrape and paint their houses all the time, and there's no county or town regulation on doing that."

Clark also cautions, "The first thing is, we don't know if it's lead paint."

The one person Radley didn't call was Kuttner. "He should be aware," complains Radley. "We're in a historic district. A lot of the houses have lead-based paint."

Kuttner says the house was stripped of lead 15 years ago. As for whether the garage has lead-based paint, "I never thought of it," he says.

"My painter of 20 years said, 'It's not lead, and if it was, I wouldn't be doing it.' " As a precaution, however, Kuttner, stopped the painting upon hearing of Radley's concerns and says he's having samples tested.

Mike Alexander, who owns Alexander Painting Contractors and is licensed in lead abatement, can sympathize with Radley. "You've got to go through so many hoops and so many calls, people give up," he says.

And there's a good reason people may want to skip lead abatement: It's expensive. Alexander estimates the cost at between $25,000 and $30,000 to properly scrape the exterior of a house.

When Alexander's employees remove lead, they wear body suits, and the building must be covered in plastic. Otherwise, "Those chips will go everywhere," he says.

He compares it to asbestos abatement. "Both of them are dust. The only difference is the respiratory cartridge," he says.

It's the lead dust that causes the real problem, particularly for young children.

Lead attacks the central nervous center, explains Virginia's lead czar, Tom Perry, who works with the Virginia Department of Professional and Occupational Regulation. In infants and children under six, exposure to lead can inhibit growth and cause retardation and death, he says.

Children eating paint chips is a popular stereotype, but what parents should really fear is dust on the floor. "That's where children under six spend the most time, putting everything in their mouths," says Perry. "Chips you can see."

And, more ominously, he warns, "You never can completely get lead out of the body."

Perry is the person to call if you suspect someone is illegally removing lead paint. However, he notes several caveats. For one, there are no regulations for a homeowner removing lead from his or her own house.

Another loophole is that if a homeowner hires someone for remodeling, renovation, or landscaping, "Our regulations only cover activities classified as abatement." That means if your painter is hired to paint– not to remove lead-based paint– well, painting usually involves scraping, says Perry.

He does say it's the responsibility of the contractor– even if not licensed– "to assume lead is in houses built before 1978."

Sellers of homes built before 1978 are supposed to disclose whether there's lead in the house. "But," says Perry, "if it's never been tested, you don't know." And the loophole is that there's no requirement to have a house tested.

Radley is still peeved about a painting session she says occurred at the same house a few years ago. "For over a week, I was cleaning dust off the sidewalks," she says.

As for her worries about lead getting into the ground water and Scottsville's storm drains, Perry can reassure her on that point. "Lead doesn't leech into the ground water," he says. "It doesn't go farther than four inches." And because lead dust is so heavy, it settles quickly.

"The biggest danger is children playing on top of it," says Perry, and a lot of people remodeling may not be aware of the lead-tainted dust they're spreading around or carrying home to their children.

Joel Lovings of Environmental Health Consultants is the go-to man for lead concerns in town, and he's fully aware of the toothlessness of some lead laws.

"Why have a government regulation that affects everyone and have nobody enforcing it that I know of?" he asks.

"Courts could have a field day from [someone] contaminating a neighbor's yard," he says, especially if they have small kids. Lovings says he's been involved in a couple of cases like that here in Charlottesville.

Homeowners who are concerned about lead-based paint can buy inexpensive test kits from area hardware stores. And Lovings suggests painting over the lead paint, which is called encapsulation. "That works on surfaces with no friction," he says, "but it not going to work on windows and doors."

The best way to deal with lead-painted old houses, says Lovings, is to replace friction points such as windows and doors: "It's less expensive to replace windows and encapsulate than to remove and replace paint." Windows are where the most dust settles, and then the wind blows it into the house, he notes.

As for the odds of lead being in a house, Lovings is blunt. "Most likely all homes built before 1970 are going to have some lead in the paint."

Kuttner says lead in paint has only come up once in his career as a contractor, and in that case, the paint did not contain lead.

He's aware that both lead and asbestos can be problems in older houses. ("I bet in 15 years, we're going to find out fiberglass is not good for you.") At one point, he'd thought of living in the Stinson House. "I never thought of it as a hazard," he says.

He's waiting for test results to see if there is lead in the paint. And he offers a suggestion to Radley.

"If she's really concerned, she could pick up the phone and call me," he says. "The correct way to deal with something like this is to call the person involved."

Leaded or unleaded? Oliver Kuttner is testing the paint on historic Stinson House in Scottsville.