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Experts share how to reduce lead paint risk

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CANTON — Chipping paint in old houses can be deadly. Poisoning from lead-based paint in homes built before 1978 is an ongoing problem, and although it can usually be easily combatted with simple maintenance steps, many property owners do not know how to deal with it.

A group of health experts met with local officials Thursday to decide how to tackle the problem in the north country at the 2012 Get The Lead Out Conference at SUNY Canton, presented by Occupational Health Clinical Centers of Upstate Medical University, Syracuse.

Lead paint was brought into the public spotlight in 2009, after toys made with lead paint were recalled. However, toys make up only a tiny fraction of lead poisoning cases. Lead paint in old houses is the cause of most lead poisoning, and the public needs to educate itself, said Catherine M. Bullwinkle, lead primary prevention project manager of the Oneida County Health Department.

“If we can recall toxic toys, we shouldn’t allow toxic buildings,” she said.

Ms. Bullwinkle spearheaded efforts to create new lead-safe standards in Oneida County over the past four years. She attended the Get the Lead Out Conference to share what she knows with north country community leaders.

The danger of lead poison has been known for a long time, but modern research has shown the problem to be even worse than previously presumed.

“I don’t know if we’ve known the scope of the issue before,” said Gregory P. Hart, north country regional director of the Workforce Development Institute. “This has been an ongoing search for knowledge.”

According to law, a very small amount of lead exposure is considered safe. But further research has shown that even small exposure can cause subtle, life-long problems.

“There is no safe level for exposure to lead,” said Dr. Michael B. Lax, medical director of Occupational Health Clinical Centers in Syracuse.

Lead poisoning is especially dangerous for children and pregnant women. Even in very small doses, it can cause life-long learning disabilities and neurological damage. In adults, it can cause heart problems, miscarriages, brain damage and impotence. Many of the more subtle symptoms go unrecognized by doctors.

“It’s kind of like this quiet epidemic,” Dr. Lax said.

Living in an old home does not need to be a cause for concern as long as simple, proper upkeep steps are taken. In rental properties, it is the responsibility of the landlord to maintain the building and to not rent out potentially toxic apartments.

“As long as they keep the paint in good repair they’re not going to have a problem,” Ms. Bullwinkle said. “We try to come up with low-cost ways, with cleaning and other steps, to keep their houses safe.”

Chipping, peeling paint is the most common source of lead dust. By using primer and touching up chipping paint spots, much of the risk can be eliminated, according to Ms. Bullwinkle.

Old windows are one of the most common sources of chipping paint. Regularly cleaning window troughs and sills will prevent lead dust from spreading. A runner in a home’s entryway will keep people from tracking in lead dust from porches or even the ground outside.

Major renovations in old homes pose a much larger set of risks. Contractors are required by law to have lead-safe training before working on houses built before lead paint was outlawed in 1978, but no such training exists in the north country.

Working with north country colleges to bring certified lead-safe training to the area was one of the priorities of the Get the Lead Out conference, but until this training is available both homeowners and contractors need to be extremely cautious before attempting a renovation.

“A liability is waiting to happen,” Ms. Bullwinkle said.

Homeowners planning on doing their own renovations do not need formal training, but it is strongly encouraged. Until proper training is available locally, information on how to safely perform renovations in old homes can be found at the Environmental Protection Agency’s website at www.epa.gov/getleadsafe.

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