CLEVELAND - A hidden camera investigation sparked action after Cleveland-area contractors were caught ignoring a federal lead safety law, putting families at risk.
"The major concern is damage to the brain," explained Roberta Anderson, a pediatric nurse practitioner at Metro Health Medical Center. She sees child after child poisoned by their own home.
Two-year-old Jayden was exposed to lead from simply opening and closing windows in his home. Now, his future is at risk.
Anderson said home renovation projects are also putting children at risk.
"The amount of lead it takes for a child to be exposed is normal hand to mouth activity," Anderson said.
There is no safe level of lead. It causes long term problems for children, including learning disabilities, behavioral problems and speech delays.
With so many older homes, lead poisoning is a problem throughout Northeast Ohio.
WEB EXTRA: Search our local lead poisoning databases:
Doctors and nurses have been on the front lines of the issue for years, but the federal government added your contractor to the war on lead.
Contractors must take steps to prevent lead exposure in your home regardless of whether you have children. However, a six-month investigation by 5 On Your Side found the law is not being enforced.
"The whole system is failing right now," Congressman Dennis Kucinich explained.
Our hidden camera video shows contractors know it.
"They haven't started cracking down real hard yet," a contractor told us.
The agency responsible for enforcing the law isn't talking, but two congressional leaders are speaking out and they're both pushing for change.
"It's a health and safety issue for me," Congresswoman Marcia Fudge explained.
We began looking into this issue in November of 2010.
In April of 2010, the federal government passed a law requiring contractors take a training class if their renovation, repair or painting project disturbs more than six square feet of a painted surface in a home or childcare facility built before 1978.
"For instance a window could be 2 by 3. So that's six square feet -- so it's a small area," Trainer Michael Fehler said.
Outside, the area increases to 20 square feet.
Fehler is an EPA certified lead trainer with Success Enterprise and Environmental Services . He travels the country training contractors on the Renovation, Repair, and Painting Rule (RRP) , and has taught classes with the Home Builders Association serving Summit and Portage Counties, and the Greater Cleveland Home Builders Association .
Fehler teaches contractors the dangers of lead to children, how to test for it, how to contain it with plastic and how to clean up lead dust with a HEPA (High Efficiency Particulate Air) vacuum. HEPA prevents small particles from blowing through a room via the exhaust of a vacuum.
"When you look at the law everybody needs this, but convincing the contractors they need the class that's another issue," Fehler said.
Majority of contractors not trained
The EPA has an online database that makes it easy for consumers to see who has taken the class and who hasn't. Within 50 miles of Cleveland, more than 1,500 contractors have the training.
But our investigation found that's a small percentage compared with the number of contractors registered to do work in a city.
In Lakewood, 73 percent of remodelers haven't been trained, along with 58 percent of window replacement companies.
"What do you make of the numbers in your district," we asked Kucinich.
"They are disturbing," he said.
Kucinich is also concerned with what contractors told us.
Hidden camera investigation
We invited three contractors to a Lakewood home with hidden cameras to see what they're telling consumers.
The Cuyahoga County Board of Health used X-ray technology to confirm the presence of lead. They found it near the doors and windows, and that's what we told contractors we wanted to replace.
"Like this window you open it up and there's probably all lead in there," one contractor told us.
Two contractors suspected lead without even testing.
The board of health said it's obvious lead is in the Lakewood home we used because of its age and the history of lead in Lakewood. Also, signs include horizontal and vertical cracking. It's called alligatoring and it's an indicator of lead-based paint.
The third contractor wasn't so sure there was lead-based paint.
"I don't think you have any lead. Maybe on the outside from back in the day but I'm not disturbing that," the contractor told us.
He said he'd still test for lead before any work began. Remember, contractors need
to be certified if they're testing and disturbing lead based paint. The Environmental Protection Agency told us this contractor is not qualified. But, listen to what he told us.
Our photographer asked, "Where did you do the training? Down in Columbus?"
He answered, "Yeah, down in Columbus."
We called the contractor and he admitted he is not trained. He told us he uses certified installers to do the work and he gave us two contacts. We could not verify that information based on the contacts given to us.
EPA relies on tips but is slow to take action
"Essentially the EPA's put the enforcement on an honor park system. They rely on contractors to do the right thing. Well, contractors are not doing the right thing," Kucinich explained.
It's a problem in Congressman Kucinich's district, and all over Northeast Ohio.
In Canton, we found 73 percent of home improvement contractors are not trained.
In Cleveland Heights, 61 percent of window installers haven't been certified in lead-safe work practices, even though windows are the number one source of lead poisoning in children.
It concerns Congresswoman Marcia Fudge, who represents the east side.
"I think people think as long as I can get away with doing it the way I did before it's OK," Fudge explained.
If you find someone breaking the law, you can complain to the EPA. They've received more than 1,000 tips about possible violations. Until this week, the EPA hadn't filed a single enforcement action.
"It's hard to believe that out of 1,000 tips, nothing has been done," Fudge said.
Just this week, the EPA filed the first and only enforcement action against a contractor in Maine. It took an anonymous tip, YouTube video, and seven months to take action against the contractor.
The EPA's regional office told me the tips need to be thorough to adequately complete a lead investigation. The EPA needs an address, phone number, and name of the company suspected of a violation. You can file complaints by calling the lead hotline at 1-800-424-5323, or calling 312-886-0879, which is Region 5's headquarters. You can also email: firstname.lastname@example.org
The EPA is doing most of its investigative work in Chicago. It wouldn't share how many inspectors it has, but the regional office said most of the investigating can be done just by checking paperwork.
Fudge said she thinks the EPA needs people on the ground.
"It's very difficult to sit in Chicago and be knowledgeable of what's going on in Cleveland," Fudge explained.
Congressional leaders take action
We shared our findings with Congresswoman Fudge after the EPA refused to publicly answer our questions about enforcement. They told us in an email, "There's nothing more to be said at this time. An interview wouldn't yield anything."
We felt consumers needed answers from this taxpayer funded agency, and worked for months to get the EPA to reconsider. We worked with the EPA in Washington, D.C., and our regional office in Chicago, Illinois. Fudge's office also worked with their respective contacts at the EPA in Washington.
Several months later, the EPA still won't address these issues on camera.
The regional office would only speak with 5 On Your Side by phone. We were told there are cases in the pipeline, and that it takes awhile to develop an enforcement action. For a new program, we were told this should be expected.
The law took effect in April 22, 2010, but the EPA delayed enforcement, allowing contractors more time to get trained. The EPA said it would not begin enforcement until October 1, 2010 . It allowed until the end of 2010 for contractors to be trained, as long as they were enrolled in a course by the end of September.
Eight months after the EPA said it would begin enforcement, no formal actions have been filed.
Congresswoman Fudge sent a letter to the Administrator of the EPA demanding answers and demanding an action plan.
She wrote, "However, neither the response to my office nor the response to WEWS offered a plan to adequately address these violations. I am seriously concerned that this important rule is not being enforced in an effective manner and that lead contamination continues to be a severe threat to public health."
EPA database doesn't list every certified firm
The EPA has made it easy for consumers to do their own background check on firms with an online database. However, we found every certified firm is not included in the database.
We discovered this when our second contractor told us all about his experience learning about the new lead law.
"We go through classes and stuff," he told us.
His company is not listed in the EPA database, yet the EPA told 5 On Your Side the company is certified. Consumers would only know that if they called the National Lead Information Center at 1-800-424-5323.
The company mistakenly checked the wrong box when someone there filled out EPA certification paperwork, so it didn't end up in the public database. The company had no idea until we told them.
The EPA said every company
doesn't want to be listed in the public database, so it gave companies an option. It's an option some companies inadvertently missed.
The EPA form now only asks how you want to be listed in the database. The EPA adds that it now removes companies from the database by request.
"I'm just hoping things like this will make them take another look at it and say maybe the enforcement mechanism we have doesn't quite work," Fudge explained.
Kucinich asks EPA for a meeting
Kucinich is also pledging to work on this issue. He raised questions about it four years ago before the rules became law.
Kucinich is ready to push the EPA for answers again. He sent the EPA Administrator a letter asking for a personal briefing on the status of enforcement.
"I'm very grateful that you brought this up because it's going to be instrumental in pushing the EPA to do the right thing on behalf of America's children," Kucinich explained.
With budget cuts, we asked Kucinich if enforcement is a realistic possiblitiy.
Kucinich said, "Funding is a legitimate issue. Right now, the government is set to be in a very precarious situation. We have to set the priorities. If the priorities of our country are not protecting the health of our children from lead exposure then what are we about?"
As always, consumers need to do their homework. Make sure the firm is certified by searching the national database . If you don't see the firm you plan to hire, call the lead hotline to verify certification at 1-800-424-5332.
Once you hire a company, make sure they give you a Renovate Right pamphlet with the information you need to know about lead and your project. You'll also be asked to sign a disclosure acknowledging receipt of the information.
If you're concerned about lead dust in your home, you can rent a HEPA vacuum from your county or city health department .
Check to see if your contractors is certified here: http://5.wews.com/ukF
Our investigation continues Wednesday on Live on 5. We'll show you why your local community may play a vital role in enforcing this law, and what one Northeast Ohio community is doing to make sure its residents are safe.
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