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Lead: the next can of worms after asbestos?

Lead: The next can of worms after asbestos?

The owners, lenders and managers of real property are well aware of the impact of environmental hazards, real or perceived, on their properties' performance. The issue of the 1980's, asbestos, educated this industry about the financial implications of a contaminant discovered in one's buildings. Now, most corporations dealing in commercial, residential or corporate real estate have an environmental professional and environmental policy integrated into their buying, selling, lending or occupancy practices.

As sophisticated companies have learned to manage asbestos, a new hazard has began making headlines -- lead. The questions about lead are not simple ones. Is it truly a hazard? Is it just an occupational hazard or does it affect tenants and residents? Or is it another inflated case of hysteria like some believed the asbestos situation to be?

Today, newspaper headlines everywhere tout the dangers of lead. The asbestos abatement industry, suffering from economic hard times, believes lead abatement to be the next windfall. On the other hand, skeptics, especially those who suffered through the asbestos problems during the late 1970's and early 1980's, are cautious. But, what if lead truly is a significant hazard -- can the commercial real estate industry afford to shrug it off, particularly in these economically challenging times? The answer is no. It is important to understand why.

The key to prioritizing environmental concerns, and subsequent action, is to properly assess the actual risk. We can ill afford to continue a trend where there has been little correlation between the limited resources dedicated to different environmental problems and the relative risks posed by these problems.

Lead is currently receiving a great deal of attention from government officials, medical experts and legal community. Congress has begun to act as various bills are under consideration. Epidemiology studies are underway. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) has launched a massive program and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is proposing bans on lead containing products. In addition, several states, such as Massachusetts, are licencing and governing the removal of lead paint. And, not surprisingly, lawsuits are mounting.

At the very least, the commercial real estate community must learn about the issues surrounding lead and apply the findings to the policies and practices of their businesses.

Lead Pervasiveness

Lead is a naturally occurring metal and is present in an array of industrial and commercial products. The United States uses more than one million tons of lead in commerce annually, according to the Environmental Defense Fund making the nation one of the leading users of the material world wide. Lead has been used for centuries in the U.S. and, despite 15 years of regulation, the overall production of lead has not declined.

Lead Hazard

The most common use is in lead-based paint. Household paints once contained up to 50 percent lead. (The Federal government restricted lead content in household paint in 1978 to 600 ppm.) A number of governmental and private health organizations have identifled lead-based paint as the major source of lead exposure and symptomatic lead poisoning for children in the United States. A recent study conducted by HUD concludes three of four U.S. homes built before 1980 contain potentially toxic lead-based paint. Of those 57 million homes, nearly 10 million are occupied by children under age seven. The Department of Health and Human Services named lead poisoning as the leading environmental health problem affecting children, documenting 250,000 diagnosed cases in children under six.

Until recently, government and health officials had believed the main sources of lead poisoning were lead-based paint chips eaten by children, although they now conclude the dust accumulating from wear or renovation is the culprit. This of course is a more severe problem than the simple ingestion of paint chips because it is so pervasive. In addition to paint, lead exposure can occur from drinking water passing through lead pipes. In a Massachusetts State Department of Public Health study of drinking water in institutions, 41 percent showed elevated levels of lead. State officials said results indicated that nearly half the schools in the state have problems with lead in drinking water. Lead solder, flux and piping have also been banned by EPA because these plumbing materials can release traces of lead into the water.

Lead exposure has been associated with contamination of soils, air and water primarily as a result of industrial pollution. At one time lead was widely used in gasoline as an additive to increase octane.

Lead is also still widely used in the United States in batteries, ammunition, molded brass and bronze products, cable sheathing, caulking, bearings and for insulting against noise, radiation, and X-rays. Exposure to lead is possible among any work force who handles lead based products or conducts activities involving removal or demolition. The average American has twice the blood lead level of people in some Western European countries.

Regulatory Activity

In the past 15 years, the EPA and the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) banned or significantly reduced lead in gasoline, paint and plumbing products. But, recent health effects studies have prompted a flurry of new legislation.

Wm. "Chip" D'Angelo President Kaselaan & D'Angelo Associates, Inc.
COPYRIGHT 1991 Hagedorn Publication
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Copyright 1991, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:Energy & Conservation Supplement
Author:D'Angelo, William
Publication:Real Estate Weekly
Date:Sep 18, 1991
Previous Article:$125,000 rebate ok'd for Polytechnic U.
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