GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — It was a scene Barb Lester is making a federal case out of.

“They were scraping,” Lester said. “Chips flying everywhere, dust all over the place.”

Lester is a long-time organizer for the Heritage Hill Neighborhood Association in Grand Rapids. A neighbor called her last summer about a painting crew that seemed to be ignoring a federal law that demands safety precautions when scraping old lead paint. It’s one of four jobs Lester has complained about to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

“Renovation is huge when it comes to a potential hazard,” according to long-time anti-lead warrior Paul Haan of the Safe Homes Coalition in Grand Rapids.

There are hundreds of children in Kent County with high levels of lead in their blood. They get it from old, flaking lead paint in their homes and yards. It also gets loose when people scrape it off. The work can put lead chips on the ground and floor and dust in the air. And it’s impossible to clean it all up, according to Haan.

“It’s going to poison that child and that poisoning causes brain damage,” he said.

That’s why there has been a federal law since 2010 requiring professional painters — even landlords or anyone who makes money off renovation — to take a class and get certified in lead safety. On the job, they have to put down plastic to catch the flakes and barriers to block the dust among other things.

On a warm summer day you can drive any street where houses were built before 1978 when lead paint was banned and see workers in hazard suits scraping old paint the right way. But it’s alarmingly easy to find those who are ignoring the law.

“I think I wrote up a list of 13 that I know were in violation,” Lester said.

In Grand Rapids, neighborhood associations were seeing so many law-busting jobs last summer that they called a meeting with local, state and federal agents to find out what they can do. Now those neighborhood associations are helping residents file complaints against painters who don’t work lead-safe.

Last year, the EPA took action against 75 painting companies across the country for violating the repair, renovation and painting law.

Two-thirds of them hadn’t even bothered to take the class and get certified. The EPA handed out penalties from under $10,000 to over $50,000.

“To me it comes down to being lazy,” said Kevin Elzinga, a Heritage Hill resident. “Not educating the customer, trying to cut corners.”

Elzinga said he saw four painters working within a block of his Grand Rapids home who were violating the law last summer. He has taken the safety courses and is certified because he runs his own window restoration business.

“It’s quite infuriating to see other people get away with it,” Elzinga said.

Barb Lester said when she notices violations, she talks to the painters and sometimes it does some good. But she said she caught one painter who had promised twice before to do it right but didn’t. And being officially certified is no guarantee either.

Lester said she found one certified painting crew scraping without putting plastic on the ground or putting up barriers. She took pictures showing paint chips all over the yard.

The owner, Matt Miedema, said he gave up his national CollegePro Painters franchise at the end of last year and is cooperating with the EPA investigation.

However, he said those paint chips were left by a previous painter who did part of the work on the house the year before and that his guys did have plastic on the ground where they were working.

“The problem is that there’s very little enforcement going on,” Lester told Target 8.

Nobody inspects job sites and the EPA investigates only if it gets a complaint. That’s why in Grand Rapids, neighborhood associations are trying to educate the public with the hope that people will eyeball bad practices and complain.

“That’s what’s going to change the painting industry,” Lester said. “Those painters that got away with it before may not get away with it much longer.”

The first line of defense may be homeowners who hire painting contractors. The law requires that contractors give homeowners information about lead safety before they start working.

“You should ask them for a copy of their certificate, both as a firm and as a renovator, and they should readily provide that,” said Richard TenHoor, who has taught lead safety to painters in Grand Rapids for the last four years.

TenHoor said homeowners should keep an eye on what the contractor is doing and if they are not following lead safety rules, they should demand that they do.  If not, TenHoor said, homeowners should fire the contractor.

Homeowners don’t have to follow any lead safety rules if they work on their own homes. But TenHoor and others and others which whom Target 8 contacted said they should.

TenHoor said homeowners can take a class, such as the one the Rental Property Owners Association offers.

Target 8 found a video on the EPA’s website that can help home owners work safely when scraping off old lead paint:


Below is a statement from the national office of College Pro Painters — a business named in our story:

“Safe workplace practices (including lead paint practices that are in compliance with the EPA) are a high priority at College Pro and we are proud of our safety program. College Pro’s franchisees own their own business and are trained to follow EPA lead-safe practices. Each franchisee is required to keep documentation of their practice for each job site.” — College Pro Painters USA President Dave Rychley