Don't Dread Lead
by Karen Yu
In January 2009, a public health nurse from the San Francisco Department of Public Health and I visited a child with lead poisoning. The landlord met us outside the house, and we talked about the purpose of our visit. I explained, in detail, that the main reason for our visit was not to find the lead hazards on his property and hold him responsible for the poisoning. We were there to help him and the child’s family eliminate the sources of lead that were still in the child’s environment in order to prevent further poisoning.
Even before I was halfway through the visit, however, the tenant informed me that she had overheard the landlord consulting his lawyer on the phone. The tenant immediately spoke to us about consulting with a tenants’ rights group.
The landlord’s concern was understandable and demonstrated that he knew his responsibility as a landlord. Part of his panic might have been due to the fact that he had never dealt with the Department of Public Health on issues related to his property. Whereas most property owners deal frequently with the Department of Building Inspection or the San Francisco Rent Board and are familiar with its processes, they are unfamiliar with the Department of Public Health. But owners who come into contact with DPH need not be distressed. Since many building structural issues can affect tenants’ health and wellbeing, public health officials often play a role in ensuring the safety and health of residents.
Over 90% of the housing in San Francisco was built before lead-based paint and leaded gasoline were banned. Lead hazards (including lead-based paint that has been damaged or deteriorated, and uncovered bare lead-contaminated soil) are on almost every property in San Francisco. Preventative maintenance—such as keeping paint in good condition, replacing sticky, painted double-hung windows, and covering bare soil—is the best way to prevent lead hazards.
Preventative maintenance efforts will not eliminate a visit from DPH, but it will reduce your chances of receiving a Notice to Abate (a notice of violations) when we come. DPH will visit a child’s home when it receives a blood test result indicating that a child has lead exposure. During the visit, DPH staff will speak with the parents about lead in the child’s environment (such as parents’ construction work clothes) and ways to prevent lead poisoning. We will evaluate the paint, soil and dust in the home for lead contamination.
If we were to find lead hazards, we would send you an NTA requiring you to correct the hazards. When you receive an NTA, do not panic! Follow the instructions in the NTA to correct the lead hazards, and your case can be wrapped up within 30 days. Our phone number is always on the NTA if you have further questions.
Property owners are responsible for four types of lead hazards: paint, soil, dust and water. The NTA will list the types of hazards found on your property. It will also list the locations where each type of hazard was found, such as “the dust on the interior window sill in the bedroom” or the “deteriorated paint on the baseboard in the hallway.” You will need to hire a lead-certified contractor to do the lead-hazard correction. These contractors are usually painters who have been trained to do lead work and have passed a licensing exam given by the State Department of Public Health. The NTA will provide a list of certified contractors whom you can hire. When the contractor comes to give you an estimate, provide him with a copy of the NTA so that he will know what hazards need to be corrected. After you have signed a contract, you will need to send the health inspector a copy of the signed contract. Do not try to save money by hiring an uncertified contractor to do the job. First, it is illegal; second, you might ultimately have to spend more money cleaning up the contamination the uncertified contractor left behind because he had allowed work dust to spread all over your property.
As soon as possible after the correction work has been completed (as soon as one hour afterwards), you will need to hire a lead-certified inspector to do a Clearance Inspection. The certified inspector will check to be sure that the lead hazards on the NTA have been corrected and that the contractor did not leave behind lead-contaminated dust and debris. Once the inspector determines that the property has passed the Clearance Inspection, he will prepare a report for you. We recommend that you wait until your property has passed the Clearance Inspection to finish paying the contractor. The NTA will also contain a list of inspectors you can hire.
After you receive the Clearance Inspection report from the lead-certified inspector, send the health inspector a copy of this report. The health inspector will then review the report and issue you a Notice of Completion, which means you have finished complying with the NTA.
Most property owners proceed from receiving the NTA to receiving the Notice of Completion without any problems from DPH. Problems usually come when the property owner fails to communicate with the health inspector on the progress of the hazard correction or when the property owner unreasonably delays correcting the hazards. Property owners can avoid ending up at the City Attorney’s Office by making the repairs and corrections in a timely manner.
So, what happened to the landlord whose apartment I visited? As it turned out, he had only one lead hazard because most of the paint was in good condition. It was an easy fix. He could have saved himself an attorney’s fee right up front.
For more information about lead hazards, call 415-252-3888 or visit www.sfdph.org/dph/EH/CEHP/.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the viewpoint of the SFAA or the SF Apartment Magazine. Karen Yu is the senior environmental health inspector with the Children’s Environmental Health Promotion Program in the San Francisco Department of Public Health. Copyright © 2009 by Black Point Press. All rights reserved.