COLUMBIA — On the second floor of the Old Armory Sports Center downtown, a group of men of all ages and sizes donned white suits, gloves and respirators, while laying down plastic and putting up warning signs.
Soon, the men, who all were enrolled in lead-abatement training offered by the city , would pretend to remove a window and strip its sill of lead paint. To an outsider, it might have seemed like a strange game of dress-up: even the men were acting silly as they put their gear on.
A full list of Missouri's licensed lead professionals can be found
on the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services Web site.
“Say, ‘Luke, I am your father,'” one man joked, referencing the famous line from "Star Wars'" Darth Vader, while a colleague tried to fit his respirator properly.
Despite the relaxed atmosphere, removing lead-based paint can be risky . The gear protects workers from either inhaling or ingesting lead, which can damage the neurological system.
And lead is everywhere.
There are 54 million homes with lead-based paint in the United States, and according to the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services’ Web site, an estimated 60 percent of Missouri homes built between 1960 and 1978 contain lead-based paint. That number jumps to 90 percent for homes built before 1949.
For this reason, Columbia has been doing lead-abatement training for eight years. Throughout this period, between 50 and 60 people have been trained. This year, 12 supervisors completed the training.
So what is the best way to tell if a home is particularly dangerous?
“Visible deteriorated paint and friction areas like windows and doors do pose a hazard in pre-1978 dwellings,” said Steve Singler of the Pharos Group, which conducted the training.
Sam Abdullah, with the city's Planning and Development Department, said the First Ward and downtown area of Columbia are particularly problematic when it comes to lead because of the number of older homes. But any building built during or before 1978 may pose a risk.
“I would recommend risk assessment be done in every home built before 1978, especially if you have children,” Abdullah said.
Even though Boone County is a low-risk area, lead poisoning of children does happen. When children are found to have elevated levels of lead in their blood, they must be referred to the state Health Department, which will then do a full assessment of the home.
“The homeowner loses control of the situation when a child shows up with lead poisoning,” Singler said.
Children can be tested for free by the Columbia/Boone County Health Department, which specifically recommends such testing for children younger than 6.
Lead can be especially damaging to children because of its effect on the neurological system, which is still developing during childhood, said Annie Holland, a colleague of Singler's who helped train the workers.
The Pharos Group is based in St. Louis and does many of the lead-paint inspections in Columbia. It is contracted to train workers for the city.
The training program offers hands-on experience that allows participants to practice prepping an area for lead-paint removal and to learn about protective clothing and gear such as respirators.
When crews are working in a home that is particularly hazardous, they must wear full suits and put up barrier tape and warning signs so that the general public knows work is being done.
Chauncey Crosby, 22, who works for Walk-A-Bar Contractors in Columbia, already is familiar with the process of removing lead-based paint. He has done lead-abatement work for four years and was taking the class to become a supervisor.
“Being a supervisor is a lot more responsibility,” Crosby said.
Lead-abatement supervisors are responsible for coming up with a step-by-step plan for how a crew will remove the paint and for keeping homeowners informed about what they're doing and what hours they will be working.
And a supervisor who willfully “cuts corners” and doesn’t protect the homeowners and workers could face criminal penalties if caught by state inspectors.
“The supervisor is responsible for all of the workers,” Crosby said, adding that the biggest issue when removing lead-based paint is controlling the dust, which can fly everywhere.
And even a little dust can be dangerous. Less than 40 micrograms per square foot is considered acceptable, but that's a miniscule amount. To put that number in perspective, a sugar packet contains 1 million micrograms, Singler explained.
Singler, Holland, Abdullah and Crosby all recommend the same thing: have a risk assessment done on your home if it was built before 1978, especially if you have children.
"Risk assessments typically cost between $300 and $400, but are very important," Abdullah said.
Having an inspection done before buying a pre-1978 home would be smart as well, Singler added.
Often, women will be warned of the dangers of lead once they become pregnant, and only then do they think to test their home.
“People will buy a house, start a family and then have an inspection done,” he said. “Then they will want to sell their house because of the lead.”