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A painter who can't paint 

Regulations cast a shadow over the renovation industry

George is a painter who doesn’t paint much anymore.

He’s an expert at painting old houses, and he’s the kind of guy you call if you want your house painted right. You will never see paint peeling from the walls of your dream breakfast nook if he’s the man with the roller.

George’s habit of dotting all his “i”s and crossing his “t”s has begun to hurt him lately. He’s always followed all the rules, but the rules are starting to cost him money.

George—not his real name—loves to work on old houses and specializes in helping to restore them. It’s what’s in those old houses that spells trouble for George and thousands of painters around the country: lead paint.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) established new guidelines for treating lead paint that changed everything for people like George. In April 2010, the agency began to enforce stringent new rules for dealing with the stuff. Any structure built before 1978 will likely have lead paint in it, and that’s something George has been dealing with for many years.

“I’ve used respirators and have been careful to vacuum and clean up everything when stripping lead paint off of walls,” he explained. “But now it’s different.”

The rules for lead paint are now similar to the rules for handling asbestos: Workers must hang thick sheets of plastic around a structure to seal it off from the environment. They have to use special tools that vacuum at the same time as they drill or cut and sealed air lock chambers to segregate the rest of the structure from any non-work areas. Workers must be clothed in protective suits with respirators and goggles. The work area must be cleaned and then checked with specially designed cloths to ensure lead levels are low.

George knows the new rules inside and out. He’s taken the requisite courses to be fully qualified and has all the equipment needed to be fully certified to deal with older houses. The certification should have helped George’s career, equipping him to deal with any kind of lead paint contamination a customer would need. Unfortunately, it didn’t work out that way.

The EPA initially claimed the cost of any painting or remodeling project would only rise by a small amount because of the new rules.

“The cost of any project has doubled,” said a miserable-looking George. “I’ve been bidding on jobs, but they are really hard
to get.”

George isn’t alone. Painters, remodelers, and restorers around the country say their costs have been driven sky high by the new rules. The new costs, along with the dismal economy, have helped further devastate an already fragile industry, they say.

The outcry over the new rules has reached the EPA, but so far no adjustments to the new rules have been proposed. A spokesman for the agency said it’s too soon to judge the effects of the new regulations on the industry.

George wants to make it clear that he doesn’t want anyone to think he downplays the dangers of lead. Before the ruling, he worked hard to keep a work site clean and free of paint dust.

“Not to diminish the risk, it’s a heavy metal and it’s toxic and I was always careful,” he said. “But [the new rules] pretty much stifled renovation work on older houses.”

The problem for George and other certified contractors is that a new black market industry has risen up to work its way around the rules. Because of some large loopholes in the law, it’s easy to circumvent the regulations. The extensive environmental regulations only apply to professional contractors. Homeowners are exempt, if they do the work themselves.

“You can pollute away, blow lead paint dust all over the neighborhood and nothing will happen to you if it’s your house,” George said.

That’s not the case for him. He could be fined up to $37,500 for every violation of an EPA rule.

“Look, I took this training,” he said. “I have this certificate and I’ve made this investment. … The thing is, I can’t compete with outlaws.”

Because many homeowners and some contractors are hiring workers who ignore the rules, George says many buildings are being worked on outside of the purview of the regulations. Landlords are required to adhere to the regulations but have been known to hire workers under the table to skirt the law.

An examination by New Times has found several projects dealing with pre-1978 buildings in San Luis Obispo that appeared to not adhere to EPA rules. No plastic tarps appeared around the buildings when painted surfaces were removed, and workers never appeared in the required protective suits and respirators. One had dust from the walls spraying out on a downtown street. Of course, the way the law is written means these projects may be entirely legal if the owners do the work themselves.

When asked about the lead regulations, workers on the downtown projects shrugged and said they hadn’t heard about them.

George hates the position he’s in. He doesn’t like to talk about the rules, but his livelihood depends on people obeying the law. He didn’t want his name used for this article. Drawing attention to himself wouldn’t do any good, he said.

“I don’t know what to do,” he said. “I’m pricing myself out of business by doing it the right way.” ∆


Staff Writer Robert A. McDonald can be reached at

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