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Complying with Cleveland’s Lead Safe Rental Law Step 1: Identifying Lead Hazards

I’ve been getting a lot of phone calls the last few weeks from landlords concerned about Cleveland’s lead safe rental law. The top question I get is: Where do I begin? (If you’re not familiar with the law, see my previous post where I explain the law in some detail.)

The 1st step is to identify the hazards. You have two choices here: Identify them yourself or hire a licensed Lead Risk Assessor (such as myself) to identify them for you.

Let me take a moment to jump ahead to the last step which is Clearance Examination. This is the document the law requires to have your home certified as “lead safe”, and you must hire a licensed Lead Risk Assessor to do it. The exam has two parts. The first is a visual examination of the home to identify lead hazards and the presence of any paint chips, dust, or bare soil. If you pass the visual examination, dust and soil samples are taken and sent to a lab to determine lead concentrations. Any amounts above the EPA and state guidelines, and you fail the Clearance and have to take it again. I’ll go into more detail about the Clearance Examination in a later post, but the important takeaway here is that a licensed professional is going to be determining where all the hazards exist, so you need to know what to look for.

So back to step one: Identifying Lead Hazards. I mentioned in a previous post that you will fail the Clearance Exam if you believe that all you have to do is repaint everything. Lead Hazards take on several forms:

· Deteriorated Paint. This is the easy one. Anywhere where paint is not intact, there is the risk of lead exposure. However, resolving this is not just a matter of repainting. I’ll discuss “paint film stabilization” and other remediation techniques in a later post.

· Friction Surfaces. This is by far the most dangerous of the lead hazards. The best example of this is old wooden windows. Every time the window is operated, friction between the sash and the window frame causes dust to form and fall near and around the window. If the window was painted with lead-based paint, that dust will have high concentrations of lead. Unfortunately, repainting is not an option since operation of the window will cause that paint to deteriorate quickly and expose the lead-based paint underneath to friction and formation of leaded dust. Most of the dust samples taken during a Clearance Examination are from window sills and window troughs. Another common friction hazard is sticky doors.

· Impact Surfaces. When a painted surface is subjected to regular impact, paint can become deteriorated or turned to dust. A good example of this is a porch floor. Have you ever noticed painted porch floors always deteriorate where people walk the most? A big hazard with floors is that the leaded dust created can be tracked in on the soles of shoes and spread along the floor of the home. A child crawling on that floor gets dust on their hands which inevitably ends up in their mouths. Because of this, floors are also an area of focus for dust samples during a Clearance Exam. Other common impact hazards include doors, where either the door strikes the jam when closing or the knob strikes a wall when opening. Repainting is not an option for impact surfaces.

· Chewable Surfaces. When children start to teethe, they try chewing on everything. Any protruding surface is a potential hazard since their teeth may break the paint. A perfect example is a window sill. Of course, window sills are the perfect storm because, not only are they chewable, but they may have lead dust on them from the friction surfaces on the window above. It’s important to note that lead-based paint tastes sweet. Once a child discovers this tasty surface, they will keep going back for more. Lead Risk Assessors will look for teeth marks on a protruding surface and, if present, repainting is not an option.

· Damaged Substrate (or potential for damage). For paint to remain intact, the substrate (or surface that is painted) has to be in good condition. If drywall or plaster is damaged, it needs repaired. Often this means identifying the cause of damage. For example, a roof leak will cause the ceiling to be damaged by water intrusion and the paint will deteriorate. Prior to repainting the ceiling, the roof and ceiling both will need repaired.

· Bare Soil. After friction surfaces, this is probably the next most dangerous lead hazard. And it’s the one most often missed by DIYers. The most common areas for soil contamination are the foundation dripline (ground within 3’ of the home’s exterior) and underneath porches and decks. Even if the home has been recently resided, years of scraping and repainting, deterioration, and weathering have caused the soil below to become contaminated. Other areas of risk include dirt driveways (from the years of lead in gasoline), locations of old playsets, and even gardens where lead can contaminate the vegetables.

This is just an outline of types of hazards that need to be addressed to pass a Clearance Examination. Within each of these categories, there are dozens of potential hazards. Are you confident you can find them all yourself?

Back to the two choices I spoke of at the start of this post: Hire a professional or do it yourself. I recommend hiring a licensed professional to do a Lead Risk Assessment to identify the hazards prior to doing any work. If you have a lot of properties and don’t want the expense of having them all assessed, at least hire someone to do one or two of them. Follow them around and ask questions. Take the opportunity to pick their brain and learn as much as you can. Then try to do it on your own. If you really want to skip the Lead Risk Assessment, I recommend reading The HUD Guidelines for the Evaluation and Control of Lead Based Paint in Housing. Start with Chapters 6 and 11, which help landlords identify hazards and choose methods of “Interim Controls” that are required by Cleveland’s lead safe rental law. Here’s the link:

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