A child crawls around an apartment complex, and 20 years later, he ends up in prison. A strange leap? Not if that unit contained lead, suggests a recent study finding powerful evidence that childhood lead exposure is a strong predictor of getting arrested as an adult.

The study, released last summer by PloS Medicine and published by the Public Library of Science, tracked 250 children in Cincinnati from womb to adulthood and found that kids with higher blood lead levels were more likely to be troublesome as they grew up. In fact, the higher the blood levels, the higher the chances of violence, and even arrest.

“These studies may jolt people who think we fixed the lead poisoning problem in the 1970s,” says Russ Haven, legislative council for the New York Public Interest Research Group. “Sure, we’ve made great progress over the years, but lead paint continues to poison kids and rob them of the ability to learn, interact, and realize their full potential.”

In fact, lead poisoning is the No. 1 environmental hazard threatening children throughout the United States, affecting an estimated 310,000 children under the age of 6, according to the Baltimore-based Coalition to End Childhood Lead Poisoning. One of the primary culprits? Apartment buildings. Three-quarters of all housing built before 1978 contains lead-based paint, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). To protect residents, apartment owners with stock built before ’78 must abide by federal and often local regulations, which are becoming increasingly stringent.

The latest federal law: Beginning April 22, 2010, the EPA will require owners of market-rate properties built pre-’78 to comply with lead safety procedures that previously were only required by operators of federally assisted properties. The new law governs common renovation activities, such as sanding, cutting, and demolition, which can cause hazardous lead dust and chips by disturbing lead-based paint.

“The issue of lead poisoning is being taken more seriously than in the past,” says Scott A. Doyle, senior vice president of property management for Rochester, N.Y.-based Home Properties. “There is more and more press around the damage lead can cause in children and municipalities, and states are tightening their inspection requirements. It’s a good thing so long as the requirements stay in balance with what’s practical.”

Play by the Rules

In general, property owners and managers aren’t complaining about the stricter rules. Instead, they say the biggest hurdle is education. The EPA is not directly notifying the housing industry of the new law, but rather providing educational outreach via trade associations.

“We are still a year away from the EPA’s new regulation, but a year can go very quickly when you are talking about establishing a new corporate policy, putting in checks and balances to make sure it’s carried out, and then educating your staff, ” says Patrick Connor, president of Connor Solutions, a Baltimore-based environmental remediation firm. “You really have a challenge for market-rate owners and managers because for the last several years, all they have heard is that lead remediation laws apply only to those who own federally assisted housing. Now we are telling them, it’s your turn.”

Until now, market-rate players were only required by federal law to make educational disclosures regarding the possibility of the presence of lead at the time of a new lease or lease renewal as well as when disturbing untested paint or known lead-based paint. (Some states and cities already require renovation disclosures.) Next April, the EPA will require lead-safe work practices for nearly all renovations involving the disturbance of paint, stain, shellac, and varnish. Exempt from the rule are minor repair and maintenance activities—those that disrupt 6 square feet or less of painted surface per room for interior activity or 20 square feet or less of painted surface for exterior activity where none of the work prohibited by the rule is used and where work does not involve window replacement or demolition of painted surface areas.

Under the new law, construction workers must take an eight-hour lead safety worker course, or a four-hour refresher if they’ve had prior training, to learn the detailed clean-up process that ensures no harmful dust is left behind. The process includes cleaning the surface with a high-efficiency particulate air filter vacuum and warm water mixed with a high-grade detergent. Once the cleaning is complete, the renovator must verify the area is clean by wiping the surface with a wet cloth and comparing it to a color metric card.

Keeping Tabs

Even with education and training, one area still poses a problem for market-rate operators. The EPA will require extensive record keeping to guarantee firms are following lead safety rules. In fact, keeping the books up to date is the most taxing part of the EPA’s law, says Eileen Lee, vice president of environment and energy policy at the Washington, D.C.-based National Multi Housing Council.

“It is very challenging to get the paperwork 100 percent correct,” Lee says. “The penalty for a mere paperwork violation is very high.” Indeed. The EPA can audit files anytime during the three-year period following the renovation work. And the fine for a flawed paper trail? More than $33,000.

That’s why WP&M Real Estate Group has hired a person whose sole responsibility is to audit the firm’s lead-based paint compliance. The Baltimore-based company, which owns and/or manages about 13,000 market-rate units in the Baltimore area, already follows strict lead paint laws since Maryland is one of the most aggressive states for consumer protection. If the firm doesn’t take the right steps, the impact is millions of dollars in penalties, says WP&M’s president Leonard Frenkil, Jr.

“Put together a process that includes regular self-auditing,” Frenkil advises. “We audit because someone might miss an initial or a signature, and the penalties are enormous. “

Dodge the Bullet

There is one way to avoid EPA’s regulations: Prove your pre-1978 buildings, or certain components, are lead-free.

Connor encourages owners to test their properties and find out what lurks within the walls and ceilings. “I have heard it hundreds of times, ‘I am not going to test because I don’t want to know,’” Connor says. “Here’s the problem: If you don’t know, then the law says you have to assume everything contains lead.”

If you do choose to test your property and find that either the building is lead-free or you find lead but choose to abate the lead, then you receive a lead-free certificate and do not have to comply with any lead laws. Consider it your golden ticket.

Thankfully, the testing fee is not exorbitant. It costs about $425 to evaluate a two-bedroom, one-bathroom unit for the presence of lead, Connor says. Therefore, since only a sample number of units need to be tested, it costs less than $10,000 to check a 200-unit property built after 1960.

As a general rule of thumb, REIT Home Properties tests all of its new acquisitions. “Our philosophy is, it’s better to test,” Doyle says. “It’s better to know what you have than wonder and have potential problems.”

Spoken like a true expert.

Pass it On Keep your staff up to speed on lead policies.

Owners of older apartment stock, whether it’s market-rate or affordable, spend their days ensconced with endless maintenance issues—be it aging mechanical systems or a leaky roof. Unfortunately, lead-safety checks don’t always land on the top of the daily to-do list.

The John Stewart Co. recently formalized a lead hazard control plan to help staffers get in the habit of complying with lead-based paint regulations at their various properties. The plan is readily available to staff via the company intranet.

“We have more than 350 properties, so getting info to people is one of the more difficult things to deal with,” says Dan Levine, senior vice president of construction for the San Francisco-based affordable developer and manager.

“There are a lot of realities of management that make it very difficult to respond to lead as appropriately as we should,” adds Keith Weber, the firm’s director of construction services. “We tend to respond to things more when they are emergencies rather than doing ongoing preventative maintenance. Every one of these properties should be dealing with annual maintenance of lead-based paint, but the reality of life is that they often times don’t.”