ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.
MICHELE NORRIS, host:
And I'm Michele Norris.
Every day in the U.S., hundreds of children are found to have ingested dangerous amounts of lead and that can lead to serious developmental problems. Later this month, new federal rules to protect children will take effect. Home renovators around the country will have to work more carefully to contain lead paint dust. But the industry says it needs more time to implement the rules.
NPR's Chris Arnold reports.
(Soundbite of hammering)
CHRIS ARNOLD: Some contractors are pulling out old windows and installing new energy-efficient ones at a home in Tewksbury, Massachusetts. The job is pretty simple - two guys with hammers and some other basic tools, wearing T-shirts and work shorts - but in a couple of weeks, that's supposed to change.
How would this work site look different after April 22nd when these rules go into effect?
Mr. CHARLIE DORSEY (Regional Sales Manager, Gorell Windows and Doors): It's going to look quite a bit different.
ARNOLD: Charlie Dorsey is a regional sales manager for the company that makes the new windows, Gorell Windows and Doors.
Mr. DORSEY: Plastic is going to be laid out from foundation, 10 feet out. At 12 feet from the perimeter of the home, there's going to be yellow caution tape. We're going to have to post signs that say Lead Poison Hazard: Do Not Enter. The workers will all be in full Tyvek suits with NIOSH 100 dual filter respirators, goggles, hoods, rubber gloves, rubber boots. It's going to look like there's astronauts in the yard.
ARNOLD: The Environmental Protection Agency will also require that the inside of the house be protected with plastic and cleaned thoroughly. Dorsey thinks that some of the requirements might go too far. But if he sounds a little exasperated, he stresses that he does take lead poisoning seriously.
As he is talking about this, a school bus pulls up in front of a neighbor's house.
Mr. DORSEY: I don't want to sound as though I'm minimizing the dangers of lead dust in certain situations.
Twenty-five children on that bus right there, all of them we're concerned about.
ARNOLD: But Dorsey says the industry has just been caught off guard here. He says the vast majority of contractors didn't know that these new rules were coming until very recently. And according to Dorsey, only around five percent of contractors have taken the necessary classes and gotten certified.
And he says that two-thirds of the homes that renovators work on have lead paints in them - pretty much any home before 1978 - so...
Mr. DORSEY: Ninety-five percent of the industry is going to lose upwards of 50 percent of their work.
ARNOLD: If that actually happened, we'd be talking about hundreds of thousands of contractors, plumbers, painters, handymen, many of whom have already been struggling with the housing crash. It seems hard to believe that most of them are going to actually stop working on April 22nd, but Dorsey says that that's what it's looking like they're supposed to do.
Mr. DORSEY: It's going to take the construction industry out at the knees. Right now, our industry is saddled with 25 to 27 percent unemployment.
ARNOLD: The EPA though says that those predictions are exaggerated. And child health advocates don't really have too much sympathy.
Rebecca Morley is the executive director of the nonprofit National Center for Healthy Housing.
Ms. REBECCA MORLEY (Executive Director, National Center for Healthy Housing): You know, it's hard to say that there hasn't been sufficient time. EPA published this rule in 2008.
ARNOLD: And so, Morley says manufacturers and contractors have just been dragging their feet for the past two years and didn't take this seriously until the deadline was right on top of them. Now they're lobbying Congress and the EPA to push back the deadline.
Ms. MORLEY: I really do think that this is a last ditch attempt by industry to see if they can use the economy as a reason for not having to implement this in a timely manner.
ARNOLD: Morley's group has been running some of the trainings for contractors around the country, and she says it's like getting anything else done -sometimes you just need a hard-and-fast deadline. And now that the deadline really is looming...
Ms. MORLEY: We've already seen a tripling of the number of training courses that we've booked for - in March and April.
ARNOLD: And the EPA sounds committed to enacting the new rules. Steve Owens is the EPA's assistant administrator for toxic substances.
Mr. STEVE OWENS (Assistant Administrator, Office of Prevention, EPA): Tragically, we're still seeing roughly a million kids a year that are affected by lead poisoning as a result of exposure predominantly from lead paint poisoning.
ARNOLD: Also, Owens says the new rules really aren't so onerous. Only one worker at any job site needs to get the training. Already, he says upwards of 100,000 people have been trained, and so that'll actually allow many times that number of workers to stay on the job. And he says the industry will now just has to get on board, keep getting trained up as quickly as possible and adopt the lead-safe work practices.
Chris Arnold, NPR News, Boston.