The state took a step Tuesday to reduce lead poisoning, the No. 1 environmental illness in Illinois children, according to health officials. In response to new federal regulations, the state hosted the first of several statewide sessions to explain new certification procedures for contractors. The new Environmental Protection Agency rule on renovation and repair requires contractors working on any buildings built before 1978 or that are occupied by children to be certified in lead-safe practices. The rule goes into effect in April. More than 5,000 Illinois children had elevated blood lead levels in 2008, exceeding any other state, according to the Illinois Department of Public Health. Children in Chicago are required to be tested for lead between the ages of six months and six years. "Lead poisoning can cause learning disabilities, language processing disorders, shortened attention span and behavioral problems," according to a plan released by the public health department in 2004. At high levels, lead can cause organ damage and death. Lead poisoning is most commonly caused by deteriorating lead-based paint, lead-contaminated dust and lead-contaminated residential soil, according to the EPA.
"Lead-abatement, for the most part, waits until a child gets sick first," said Nicholas Peneff, owner of Public Health and Safety, Inc. in Chicago. "We're trying to prevent that. We're trying to treat the house first." Peneff's company is an EPA and state-accredited training center where contractors can earn certification in lead-safe practices. Without certification, contractors will face a fine of $37,500 for each day they work. "It's all regulated now," Peneff said. "It's federal. They'll stop you from advertising, from working in pre-1978 houses." The required training focuses on lead-safe work habits. "If you are going to damage or remove something, you try to do so without disturbing the finish," Peneff said. "You work wet, so it keeps the dust down. Lead is in the dust." Most of the contractors Peneff sees at his training sessions are eager to comply. "They're proud of their work," Peneff said. "They don't want to be embarrassed." But contractors are not without their concerns. "People either think they're going to lose work, or that it's going to prove there is lead," Peneff said. "Once you call it lead, if anything goes wrong, most insurance companies have an insurance exclusion. They have to become environmental contractors [with the new rule], but they can't get insurance to protect their work."