If you remodel, repaint or repair your house, federal regulators say you must control the spread of lead dust. But if you knock the whole place down, all bets are off.
This is what several Portland neighbors learned earlier this year when a century-old home on Southeast Sherman Street was demolished.
Caitlin Poliak and Chris Palochak received a door hanger notice in May telling them about a demolition permit for the house next door, separated merely a few feet from their home. Poliak called the numbers on the notice for more information: Would they deconstruct the house? How long would it take? Had they tested for lead paint or asbestos?
The couple's daughter was, at the time, 6 months old, and Poliak had questions. Exposure to ingested lead — most commonly through lead dust from old, flaking lead paint — can have serious medical consequences for children.
But she found few answers.
"I talked to five different organizations, who all pointed to the next one," Poliak said.
She reached out to another neighbor a few houses down, Kelly Campbell, who is executive director of Oregon Physicians for Social Responsibility. Maybe she could help navigate the web of bureaucracy.
"I knew about lead, I knew about advocacy," Campbell said. "But it was shocking to find that there is just no regulation of this."
The door hanger lists information for the Oregon Health Authority, the city Bureau of Development Services, the Department of Environmental Quality, the Oregon Construction Contractors Board and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, but the women discovered none of those agencies oversaw containment of lead dust in demolitions.
OSHA, for example, makes sure employees working at demolition sites are protected from lead dust and asbestos, but they have no environmental oversight.
"The workers must have respirators... but the 9-month-old baby next door, OSHA can't do anything about," Campbell said.
The spokesperson I initially reached at the Environmental Protection Agency thought federal regulations applied, but days later I was told the EPA's Lead Renovation, Repair and Painting Rule, passed in 2008, actually doesn't apply to house demolitions.
That rule "requires that firms performing renovation, repair, and painting projects that disturb lead-based paint in homes, child care facilities and pre-schools built before 1978 have their firm certified by EPA or an EPA authorized state, use certified renovators who are trained by EPA-approved training providers, and follow lead-safe work practices," wrote agency spokesperson Suzanne Skadowski.
"It's a set of rules that aims to protect occupants," said Perry Cabot, who heads Multnomah County's lead poisoning prevention program. "But it does fail to address the concerns of very nearby families whose properties could indeed be subject to fugitive dust emission from demolition projects."
A new city of Portland ordinance, which hadn't taken effect in time for the house on Sherman Street, will require demolition projects for homes built in 1916 or earlier to use deconstruction techniques to salvage materials. That will address the lead dust issue for some demolitions, but lead paint wasn't banned until 1978.
How dangerous is a week-long home demolition, really, to a neighborhood? I asked Cabot what research has been done on the impacts to this kind of exposure.
"I believe that it's relatively little, and I think that's part of the problem," Cabot said. "We don't know as much as we should."
Lead's a tricky thing. You couldn't look at a child and see signs of lead exposure, but the effects can be far-reaching and profound.
"It's a toxin that doesn't manifest with any overt symptoms," Cabot said. "It affects many parts of our bodies in different ways, kidneys and brain and blood, hearing, reproductive systems. It gets into all of those places and it can muck around in each and every one of those places in different ways."
Two to three micrograms of lead detected in the blood are known to cause cognitive changes to the brain, he said, and being in a house adjacent to a demolition is "a realistic pathway of exposure."
"It's subtle," he said. "When you shave off one, two, three IQ points, you're not destroying a life but you are potentially forever altering the potential of that individual to be a fully empowered contributor to our society."
Oregon Senate Bill 705, passed in 2015, requires an asbestos survey before home demolitions. But the original draft of the bill also included regulations for lead dust and would have required the Oregon Health Authority to study impacts of lead from demolitions.
When it was ultimately passed, the bill no longer had that language.
"We had originally included lead, but had to remove lead because of outstanding questions about who would have jurisdiction over lead abatement," Sen. Michael Dembrow wrote in an email. "So we decided to go forward with asbestos and initiate conversations around lead."
He's already drafting early proposals for a 2017 bill that would expand the law to include lead regulation, as well as provide "greater oversight and enforcement authority to local governments."
Ultimately, Poliak was happy with the way the home next door was demolished. Hearing neighbor complaints, the crew took time to deconstruct most of the house, and she paid the workers $50 to hang a large piece of plastic sheeting between her house and the work site.
But for the hundreds of demolitions that happen around Portland and other urban areas across the state, that won't be the case. And that's not good enough.