EARLY IN THE morning on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Marta Palacios heard a painting crew working on the house next door to her Central Avenue home. Concerned about lead — which is very often found in paint manufactured before a 1978 ban — Palacios was taken aback to find the painters sanding with power sanders, paint dust and chips flying.
"The only place they had put a drop cloth," said Palacios, "was right under their feet. And the guy who was doing the sander was just wearing a little cloth mask."
With three children under age 4, Palacios was more than concerned. Lead is well-known to cause developmental delays in children. Even small amounts disrupt brain development.
"I can wash it off the play structure," said Palacios. "But then it's in the lawn and I can't get rid of it without digging up the sod." Palacios asked the painter to follow proper lead abatement procedures, which she knew included wet sanding to weigh chips down and spreading ground cloths to capture all waste.
"Initially he was dismissive," Palacios said of what turned out to be a three-day odyssey to get the job stopped. "Later I think he was more annoyed." At one point Palacios saw the painter sweeping paint chips that had fallen on the garage roof, further distributing the paint.
Unable to reach officials on the holiday, Palacios left messages at the city of Alameda building department, as well as county and state lead prevention offices. She also called the police, but they could not help.
On Tuesday, according to Alameda Building Official Greg McFann, a city inspector looked at the job, and then referred it to Alameda County's Lead Poisoning Prevention Program.
Though California's housing code says it's illegal to create a lead hazard — which includes scraping paint without containment — many cities, including Alameda, don't consider it to be their issue.
"We don't really have enforcement authority," said McFann.
"We feel cities do have the authority," said Julie Twichell, Community Education Manager for the county's lead poisoning prevention program. Twichell says that while her agency has good success with teaching painters and homeowners about how to contain lead paint, they can't enforce anything.
"I can go out and say, 'As a health educator if you're scraping, sanding, removing lead-based paint without any containment that's considered creating a lead hazard and that's a violation,'" said Twichell. "But I can't write a citation."
In the case of the house next to Palacios, the illegal work was finally stopped three days after it started by a stop work order issued by the state. But that was after paint had already been dispersed, and after Palacios paid a private company to tent her lawn and the side of her house.
"The process may not be as quick as anyone wants," said McFann, "But that's the process."
There are dozens of state and federal laws on the books that relate to lead, but a California Housing Code Modification, SB460, passed in 2003, is specifically designed to give enforcement authority to local agencies, so they can fine, cite or issue stop work orders when lead paint is not being contained.
"The state grants enforcement authority to both the city and the county. So neither is designated the lead by the state," McFann wrote in an e-mail response to a question about the housing code. "This is why we continue to work with the county as they have the expertise and we have citation authority."
Bottom line, it's up to homeowners to ask painters to include proper lead abatement in their bids and to make certain they follow the rules for safe containment. Or it falls to the neighbors.
"Thanks for bringing this up," McFann wrote. "I will take a closer look at making sure we respond quickly."
You can learn more about lead paint and how to manage it properly at the Alameda County Lead Poisoning Prevention Program site, www.aclppp.org. Or call their information hot line, 567-8280.
Eve Pearlman also writes the Alameda Journal Blog, www.ibabuzz.com/alamedajournal.