It’s been the better part of a century since water supply pipes were made out of lead, and it’s been decades since lead paint was banned, but the dangers of this toxic element can still come up to haunt us and our kids. Sometimes, all it takes is a home renovation.
The economy in Greenport Village has been on a roll the past few years, and with that comes new investment in homes and commercial buildings, new restoration projects, and new concern among residents.
Jeff and Salina Truelove, who live on Second Street, found this out firsthand when their pediatrician found elevated levels of lead in their son’s blood when he turned one year old.
Mr. Truelove had always heard that you shouldn’t let your kids eat paint chips, an easy task that he thought he had covered. But then, after his son’s testing, he looked around and realized that six homes were being renovated surrounding his house, with painters scraping and sanding, and landscapers coming the next day to blow leaves, and paint dust, around the neighborhood.
The Trueloves, along with another couple, Anna and Sten Evenhouse, decided they wanted to do something to make contractors more aware of the dangers of lead in their immediate environment. They began their campaign with a community conversation at Greenport’s Floyd Memorial Library on the morning of March 10.
“We started being concerned when we were renovating an old house, and we wanted to save parts of the old house,” said Ms. Evenhouse, whose husband works in the construction industry. “The level of lead that’s safe is zero. We want to take steps to make Greenport safe for kids.”
The group has convinced the library’s assistant director, Poppy Johnson, to open the library up for a free, eight-hour Lead Renovator Certification course for contractors.
As of April 2010, anyone who performs renovations, repairs, or painting in pre-1978 housing or child-occupied facilities must be Lead-Safe Certified by the EPA or an EPA-authorized state. When renovating houses where lead is present, they must use HEPA filter vacuum attachments on sanders and grinders, and must contain the debris generated by the scraping and store it securely at the end of each work day.
While individuals and firms that are not certified could face fines of up to $37,500 per day, Mr. Truelove said he’s contacted the EPA when he’s seen people working without using safety equipment, but “the EPA is three guys in New Jersey” who never made the trip to check up on workers here.
One builder in the audience said he believes the biggest problem is non-English speaking workers who “grab a paintbrush because it’s the lowest overhead. They’re not licensed, and they work after hours, on the weekends, and they slip under the radar.”
Mr. Truelove said he’d talked to some Spanish-speaking workers who were scraping and sanding at his neighbor’s house, explaining about the pintura plomo, which is harder, flakier and more brittle than modern latex paints.
“They didn’t know,” he said. “Lead paint was used because it was resistant to weather. It was more expensive, and it wasn’t used down south.”
“If we’re interested in making a difference for kids, we’ve gotta reach lower income families who live in dilapidated housing,” said Sten Evenhouse.
“It’s the children of people who are not working at a regulated job that I’m most concerned about,” said Megan Hays, a pediatric nurse practitioner at Peconic Pediatrics, who said many parents working those jobs come home with lead paint dust on their clothing and don’t know it can hurt their kids.
Ms. Hays added that when she had her house renovated, she picked the most expensive painter because they promised to bring vacuums with HEPA filters on them and do the job safely, but when the workers came to her house, they didn’t bring any safety equipment with them, and she didn’t know where to turn to hold them accountable.
Glynis Berry of Peconic Green Growth suggested that any information offered by the group be bilingual, and that the contractor certification class be offered in Spanish. She also said it would be helpful if there was a web page listing contractors who have their Lead Renovator Certification.
Greenport Village Administrator Paul Pallas gave the group an overview of $611,000 in grant funding awarded this year to Southold Town by New York State to help the town replace lead water service pipes, which were phased out by the 1940s, but may still be in areas that had public water prior to 1940.
While the grant is being administered by Southold Town, most of the remaining lead water pipes are likely in Greenport Village, said Mr. Pallas, who is working with Southold Government Liaison Officer Denis Noncarrow on implementing the grant.
Mr. Pallas estimates the grant will cover the cost of replacing 80 service pipes, which carry the water from the main at the street to houses, on a first-come, first-serve basis, and if the program is successfully implemented, they’re hoping to receive more funding next year.
Mr. Pallas and Mr. Noncarrow are currently drafting a letter to send out to the community asking property owners to have their service tested to see if it is lead, and Mr. Noncarrow is compiling a list of interested individuals. He can be reached at email@example.com.
“When the letters show up, respond as soon as you get it,” urged Greenport Village Trustee Mary Bess Phillips.
While Ms. Phillips said she thinks “there are plenty (of lead service pipes) that are still there,” the levels of lead in the village’s water have “been low as long as I’ve been in village government.”
While water service pipes may be made of lead, with use these pipes form a scaling layer of aluminum and magnesium silicate which protect from lead leaching into the water supply. But this scale layer is not a sure-fire safeguard — it was the corrosion of these pipes after the city of Flint, Michigan cut an anti-corrosive additive out of their water treatment budget that helped create the lead water crisis there.
In 2012, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control halved its standard for levels of lead in the blood of children ages one to five, from 10 micrograms per deciliter to 5 micrograms per deciliter. Anything over 5 is now considered cause for concern.
According to the CDC, ‘the new lower value means that more children will likely be identified as having lead exposure allowing parents, doctors, public health officials, and communities to take action earlier to reduce the child’s future exposure to lead.”
That explains why, when the Trueloves’ nephew, who is now five, was tested for lead at the age of one, he had the same blood level as their child. Their nephew’s pediatrician said it was nothing to worry about, but their son’s case is now considered by pediatricians to be cause for concern.
“When you have a one-year-old and you get that news, it’s devastating,” said Salina Truelove. “They could have been exposed in utero or any time during the first year of their life. Finding out at one is too late.”
Ms. Evenhouse said she’s seen statistics, ending in 2014, that show generally low levels of lead in Greenport children during the economic downturn, but a slight uptick as the building trades here got back to work. But the data she’s seen only goes through 2014.
“I ran the numbers at my office, and they were lower than I expected, but that does reflect what we’ve done to help bring the levels down in our patients,” said Ms. Hays, the pediatric nurse practitioner.
In the end, the group hopes to share awareness of persistent lead in their environment throughout the village, and has the help of Riverhead Building Supply, which has offered to place signs and data sheets about lead by the paint scrapers in its Greenport store.
Contractors who are interested in signing up for the Lead Renovator Certification course can contact Poppy Johnson at firstname.lastname@example.org, and the group is looking into offering the certification class in Spanish.
“We’re hoping to see a groundswell of awareness,” said Mr. Truelove. “At the end of the day, who’s going to argue against healthy kids?”