FRANKLIN — Owen Bendixsen had no idea he was opening the hatch to lead poisoning when he decided to salvage a basement door. It was a routine home improvement project, doable in less than a day.
“It was an old, old door I decided to sand, to save because it was all wood,” said Bendixsen, a care coordinator for Lakes Region Healthcare. Two months later, at a routine blood screening, his two-year-old son had elevated levels of lead – 13 micrograms per deciliter, while his two older sons’ results were 7 and 8, at a time when the state’s threshold for public health intervention was 10.
“By virtue of living in a home, specifically one built before 1978, there’s a danger” of harmful lead exposure from disturbing lead paint and from the ambient dust it creates, Bendixsen said. His Franklin house was built in 1950 – 28 years before lead was banned in house paint. “I don’t think people understand. They just go about their tasks. That’s what I did. People need to take into account the age of their home before they begin a home improvement project.”
Research shows that 30 percent of childhood lead poisonings happen where remodeling or renovations have occurred within the last 6 months in homes, child care centers, schools – anywhere kids regularly spend time. Although the risks of lasting damage may be minimal from a one-time exposure, ongoing breathing or swallowing lead dust from chipping, flaking paint can push blood-lead levels into a danger zone, resulting in irreversible brain damage. Lead poising can cause attention deficit disorder, learning disabilities, developmental and speech delays, and can lead to or intensify autism, according studies cited by the Centers for Disease Control, the National Institute of Health and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
The changes can be negligible or profound, depending on the individual and the length and degree of exposure, said Dr. Alan Woolf, director of the Pediatric Environmental Health Center at Boston Children’s Hospital, which treats 20 to 30 New Hampshire children each year for elevated blood-lead levels that have alarmed their primary care providers. Each year roughly 600 New Hampshire infants through five-year-olds have lead levels at or above the Center for Disease Control’s trigger for public health intervention, according to the New Hampshire Department of Health and Human Services. Currently, 254 children statewide, age 72 months and younger are in case management for elevated lead. Exposure in housing, not drinking water, is the primary cause.
Kids up to age six and pregnant women are particularly vulnerable; lead poisoning can occur in the womb. Fifty-five percent the state's housing was built during the lead-paint era, up to 85 percent in former mill and industrial towns, including those in the Lakes Region. This makes degrading lead paint a nearly-omnipresent danger, even though its presence is rarely given a second thought.
"They don't think to test when buying a home," said Gail Gettens, a child development specialist and educator for NH Healthy Homes at DHHS. Most people "have no idea that home inspections don't cover it. They don't think about (lead paint) when renovating old bathrooms, old kitchens or old porch steps," Gettens said. "Everyone thinks this problem was solved" years ago.
Property owners seldom test for lead paint, or before fix-it projects release dust into the air. Inexpensive lead test kits ($10 to $13) aren't brisk sellers at home improvement and building supply stores, according to paint department managers. The Home Depot in Tilton sells roughly two a week.
After decades of warnings, little or nothing has been done nationwide to contain or remove lead paint from real estate - before its presence is exposed in children’s blood tests and the potential for brain damage is known. Vermont requires rental housing to be inspected every three years for hazards, including chipping paint, but not specifically for lead paint. In Franklin, when the fire department’s health and safety inspectors are alerted, potential and obvious hazards are brought to the attention of property managers, including chipping, corroding paint. Franklin relies on strict international housing code standards. But, as in most municipalities across the country, health inspectors, fire safety inspectors and building code enforcement officers are not trained or certified to test for lead.
A code of silence
A lead paint test doesn't occur until a homeowner, landlord or buyer requests one, or a tenant reports something suspicious, such as flaking, peeling paint, or a surface that resembles alligator skin, a telltale sign of lead paint.
Before a home is sold, buyers know when it was built, and whether the risk is indicated on a disclosure statement. Sellers can check a box stating they have no knowledge of any lead paint on site. The system depends on honesty, but it can lead to a false assumption that a property is safe.
Tenants are also informed of the potential before they sign a lease, and landlords are required to give out an Environmental Protection Agency booklet, "Protect Your Family from Lead."
Still, when it comes to lead paint, a code of silence and tolerance persists around one of New England’s most prevalent housing toxins. Common practice is to turn a blind eye, until some level of poisoning results.
Martin Wood, a lead inspector and risk assessment consultant for New Hampshire Housing Finance Authority, has inspected 251 units statewide since 2018, many with obvious hazards such as peeling, flaking paint. Lead paint on doors, floors and window sills, and on old double-hung windows with sash cords, is common in pre-1978 housing. That includes low income rentals where maintenance has been skipped, and expensive antique homes where people prefer to live with history intact.
Lead dangers linger, sometimes below coats of newer paint, and in varnish and wood stains, where lead was added to speed up drying, he said. Too often hazards are ignored by property owners and buyers, whose minds are occupied by other concerns.
“They don’t think about it, or the repercussions to a child,” Wood said - especially during fast-paced transactions in today’s real estate market, where multiple buyers are competing for the same property and purchasers are bombarded with boxes to check and documents to review under pressure. Requesting a lead inspection before closing may mean someone who didn’t ask for one may win the bid, even at the same price, according to New Hampshire real estate agents.
The likelihood of lead paint can be obscured by other housing worries, from radon to roof integrity to drinking water quality. Potential buyers are referred to a 50 to 60-page lead safety document online that they must acknowledge receiving. But in the end, real estate agents can't decide whether a buyer tests an old home for lead paint.
The buying process, heavy with paperwork and life-changing decisions, “is cumbersome. Maybe lead is losing its place,” said Michael Gagnon, a realtor with Keller Williams Lakes and Mountains Realty in Meredith. Starstruck house hunters may think, "We're going to test the things that impact our lives directly right now."
"We make sure lead is something people look at, but it may be something people breeze through just to make a timely offer,” Gagnon said. In the end, “You have to look at it in your own life and see how important it is to you.”
Some people think, “’I grew up in a house with lead, and I’m not that bad,’” said Wood. But New Hampshire’s housing stock is getting older, and especially in lower-income rental properties, people move often. “One unit can poison a lot of children,” said Wood. “My wife (a lead inspector) went into one property and started crying. We feel for the kids, for what they’re living in.”
Many of the active dangers can be traced to renovations that were done improperly, incompletely or without adequate safety precautions. “They usually renovate the inside, but the outside may also be in bad condition,” with lead paint flaking off drip-edges onto surrounding soil, where it poses an ongoing risk for young children, said Wood.
Since the state’s threshold for public health intervention was lowered to 7.5 micrograms of lead per deciliter of blood in 2018, more properties are coming up for assessment, Wood said. But it’s impossible to estimate how many hazardous interiors remain unaddressed, according to NHHFA.
Colonial and industrial era-housing is common throughout the state, including in Franklin, Laconia, Tilton, Concord, Manchester, Nashua, Claremont, Rochester, Somersworth, Berlin and Keene. “If maintenance is not occurring regularly, the risk is greater,” said Wood, who works for the Massachusetts-based Institute for Environmental Education. “Tenants need to be asking questions and property owners need to be wanting them to be safe. A lot of people have a fear of knowing because if they know, then they have to do something about it.”
Not enough call for abatement - and a steep bill
Stephen Converse, a certified lead abatement contractor in Laconia, said he received three or four calls last month from parents panicked because their children tested high for lead after pediatric offices reopened for well-child visits. But he never heard back from them.
Converse, a certified lead contractor for 20 years, said he gets very few calls for lead remediation work – fewer than 10 a year – even after the state’s blood-lead level for action was lowered two years ago, and the building industry predicted contractors would be overwhelmed. “If it’s happening, I’m not seeing it,” said Converse, who deals with landlords and homeowners, but not those whose abatement projects are state-ordered.
For people who don’t apply for or qualify for state or federal financial assistance, cost remains a barrier.
Replacing two exterior doors can run $2,000. A typical lead inspection report costs $1,000 to $1,500, and the average local bill for remediation is $8,000 to $10,000, Converse said. Recently, a Laconia landlord spent $25,000 for a complete abatement of a two-bedroom unit while it was vacant, to proactively prevent lead paint poisoning, he said.
Finding people to size up and fix it is also a stumbling block. Housing experts say the state doesn’t have enough certified inspectors and abatement contractors to handle its remaining, widespread lead paint problem. Most are in southern New Hampshire. Converse said many of his central New Hampshire colleagues have left the abatement business because demand hasn’t matched the cost in class time and money to stay certified to deal with lead.
Do-it-yourself improvements remain the norm. Few budget-conscious homeowners realize that the federal law that applies to paid contractors is also meant to guide them: if more than six square feet in pre-1978 housing will be disturbed in renovation, a certified renovator is required to test for lead paint before demolition or construction, according to rules set by the Environmental Protection Agency.
There’s a double-whammy for small-to-average property owners. Once they discover lead, they legally have to disclose that. Which means they’re not able to sell or rent until the lead removed or encapsulated, said Carmen Lorentz, director of Lakes Region Community Developers. LRCD has spent approximately $1.5 million since 2012 to abate lead paint in area housing with help from federal grants.
“What’s the point of knowing, if there’s $50,000 in work required, that I can’t afford to do? It’s definitely the cost” that promotes community silence and inertia. “The financial incentive is not to find out, and not to disclose”– even though the cost of remediation is minor compared to the potential toll of lead poisoning on a child’s life.
The price tag discourages tenants from alerting landlords because costly improvements such as lead abatement are often passed on as rent increases. “They don’t want a reason to move out, because they don’t have another choice,” another place within their price range to go, Lorentz said.
In the Lakes Region, high-cost housing abounds, but affordable options are scarce. Some displaced families have stayed in motels and homeless shelters long-term until they’ve found something they can afford, Lorentz said.
Because of the ongoing problem – and the costs of testing and remediation – child health advocates say adding lead paint tests to home inspections before properties change hands may be the best way to prevent harm to children.
By the time parents learn of high lead levels, it’s too late, said Chris Seufert, a Franklin attorney who handles roughly 25 cases of childhood lead poisoning in New Hampshire each year. Once the lead hazards are removed, “The poisoning stops, but the active damage has occurred. You have cases of the same damn building poisoning different kids in different families over different generations.”
"We're using our kids as lead sensors," said Gettens at NH Healthy Homes. "We're using the children as our sentinels, and as canaries in the mine."
For information on how to renovate or repair your older home safely, go to leadfreekidsnh.org/advice-for-diyers.php