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Lead: another asbestos frenzy?

As government at all levels is focusing on the presence of lead and related health problems, many real estate owners, particularly residential, are concerned that lead may become the asbestos of the 90's.

During the last decade there was a panic over asbestos. Many owners submitted their buildings to the costly process of removal, and some disreputable contractors preyed on owners' fear. Later, after many owners had spent thousands of dollars to remove intact asbestos, the health gurus said the containment, in most cases, was harmless if left undisturbed.

Marolyn Davenport, a vice president of government affairs for the Real Estate Board of New York, is the representattve to the Mayor's Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention Advisory Committee.

"I've been trying at every opportunity to say we cannot let the public hysteria on this issue skew the reality of this issue."

Such items as complete removal of lead paint from areas like windowsills - even if it was located 10 coats under non-leaded paint - as well as the testing of every housing unit for the presence of lead have already appeared and been deleted by legislators.

"No one in the industry believes the approach should be to play ostrich, Davenport said. "The goal is to prevent the poisoning of children at risk and owners need to be responsive to complaints of peeling paint, particularly in older buildings where young children are present."

A bill in the U.S. House of Representatives, introduced by Representative Al Swift (D-Wash) that is being "marked up" this week, has had a provision for mandatory testing of every residential unit upon rental or sale as an on-again/off-again require- ment. Washington lobbyists are working frantically to ensure this onerous provision stays off.

The bill's focus now is to certify people for abatement work.

The prime House proponent of testing, .Representative Henry Waxman (D-California), at the behest of the National Multi Housing Council and the Apartment Owners Association, has changed the focus of what he expects to introduce on the floor of the House.

W. Donald Campbell, senior vice president of the National Multi Housing Council said, "The other groups are trying to stop the testing provisions. Our feeling was you're not going to be able to stop it and it is important to improve the bill as much as possible."

The Senate bill is more concerned with obtaining a cost- effective lead abatement and education program. The program is defined to remove the lead hazard, such as by covering, and not the lead.

Davenport said it is the deteriorating paint which presents the risk of lead poisoning. "You don't go crazy over the low or no risk," she said. "It's going to be present in any residential building. The mere presence does not constitute a risk. We have to maintain a practical approach to maintain the affordability of the housing stock.'

A testing provision was recently excluded from a bill that the New York State legislature passed in its closing moments in June. That public health bill does, however, set up an Advisory Council under the auspices of the New York State Department of Health, to address the problems of lead contamination in paint, soil, dust and drinking water and to minimize the risk of exposure.

Daniel J. Sitomer, a partner with the law firm of Brown h Wood, said: "Our concern is that there not be an overreaction to the lead problem by the Advisory Council in developing the program and policy as well as the licensing and certification issues. We hope it does so slowly and methodically without a run to rash decisions.

"What we have found," Sitomer continued, "is that once empowered by the state legislature, agencies sometimes overreact, not only in the implemenation of the laws but specifically in the enforcement of the laws. What we don't want is an overreaction and a movement to overregulation."

The Advisory Council will contain some real estate representatives and its duties are primarily focused on the adoption of policies toward education and outreach in order to identify those with elevated lead levels and to minimize exposure to others. The Advisory Council will also make recommendations to license and certify persons performing inspection and abatement of lead.

Approximately 600 children have been identified as having lead contamination in the whole City of New York and Davenport said those kids are concentrated in five health department districts. With the risk factor lowered by the New York State legislature on the advice of medical experts to 10 micrograms of lead per deciliter of blood from 25 micrograms, the number of children at risk is expected to triple.

"It is very much a problem of highly deteriorated housing as opposed to the whole housing stock, and most of that [deteriorated stock] is owned by the City," Davenport added.

Children become exposed to lead by chewing on windowsills, lead paint chips or inhaling lead dust generated when opening and closing painted windows. It can also be ingested in drinking water flowing through lead pipes or by playing in contaminated soil, such as that found near highways. Lead poisoning interferes with learning and in larger doses produces physical impairments.

An official in New York City's Housing, Preservation and Development (HPD), said a testing requirement would mean visiting every one of the city's 1.9 million apartments. An inspection could open the buildings up to the discovery of other violations, particularly in city owned buildings. The cost, he said, would be astronomical both for the inspections as well as the repairs that might be necessary for both the city and privately owned housing stock.

Harold M. Shultz, deputy commissioner for housing policy and supervision for Housing Preservation and Development, said they are devising a proposal for dealing with lead paint problems using new and innovative approaches. While this year's budget includes $17 million for lead paint issues, Shultz said they believe they will need City Council approval to begin a two- year pilot program. Some of that money will be used for loans and grants to aid apartment building owners to do lead abatement work.

Under current law, if there is a building erected before 1860, a child under seven and peeling paint, it is assumed a lead condition exists. Under the proposal by HPD, they would test the apartment to ascertain the actual hazard. Tests would include wipes and an "XRS" machine which can tell exactly where and how much lead is present in the paint.

These inspections would take place as a matter of course when HPD is conducting routine inspections or when a tenant complains that there is a peeling paint conditions and there are children in the apartment. Under current law, certain peeling paint conditions can result in a $150 per day fine until the situation is corrected. HPD also intends to qualify and license abatement workers. Because it would be a local program, it would not qualify under HUD rules for $50 million in grants which require a State certification process. Shultz said they will be discussing the issue with the state.

Because of the court order requiring full abatement, Shultz said they are negotiating with the plaintiffs, the Coalition to End Lead Paint Poisoning (NYCCELP) and the outcome of those discussions will determine when and how they go to the City Council to authorize a program.

"We don't think that full abatement is in fact possible on any kind of substantial basis," Shultz said. "We think the expense - in the $10,000 to $15,000 range - would put a substantial burden on both owners and tenants. It would have to be recouped through rents or reduced maintenance or reduced tax payments. We also think that at those cost levels most abatements would not get done because owners would not be able to finance them. We wish to devise a program that could work and protect children and which will be doable."

HPD is reporting to the Mayor's Task Force which contains members of REBNY, RSA and CHIP.

The Mayor's Lead Poisoning Committee has been working for three months and has another 15 months before it is scheduled to report. Davenport, who is a member, said it's purpose is to look at the entire issue, including housing, public health and public education, and make recommendations on a program to the mayor.

REBNY's position is that any required work be done in correlation to the potential risk depending on the condition of the paint and the amount of lead present in samples.

"We are looking at the full spectrum and how it can be dealt with most effectively without overreacting," said Davenport. Rent Stabilization Association President, John J. Gilbert III, who is also a member of the mayor's committee "What we can't afford to do is to put property owners out of business as they did in Baltimore when the city instituted an aggressive enforcement program," he said. "Lead paint is a public health problem and must be treated as such."

Gilbert said many property owners did not put lead paint n their apartments to begin with. "What we need to do is to educate the public, educate tenants and educate property owners as to the most cost effective way of dealing with this problem," he said.

Sitomer pointed to the industry's experience with asbestos and the general belief that there has been over-enforcement by regulators with a lack of understanding of the substantial impact on the real estate and abatement industries. "I think everybody is for and supports environmental management and certainly everybody is for the protection of children, and we hope that the Advisory Council and the Department of Health are sensitive to business issues as well, and treats all interests fairly," he said.
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Title Annotation:presence of lead and associated health problems examined by government agencies
Author:Weiss, Lois
Publication:Real Estate Weekly
Date:Jul 29, 1992
Words:1617
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