updated 3/31/2008 6:51:04 PM ET 2008-03-31T22:51:04

Contractors will have to take additional precautions when renovating buildings where children could be exposed to lead dust from old paint, the Environmental Protection Agency said Monday.

The EPA announced new work place standards for renovations in older homes where children or pregnant women live, and in older buildings that house child-care centers or schools.

The standard, which will take effect in two years, require contractors to train workers on dealing with lead paint, post warning signs, contain the dust in work areas, close all vents, keep occupants and pets away from lead-tainted dust, and verify proper cleanup.

"Contractors must be certified, trained and follow safe practices," said James Gulliford, EPA's assistant administrator for prevention, pesticides and toxic substances.

The new rules apply to work done in housing, child-care facilities, and schools built before 1978, the year lead was banned for use in housing.

While most newer structures do not have lead-based paint, Gulliford said two-thirds of the homes and half of the schools and buildings with child-care facilities built before 1960 contain some lead-based paint.

If not detected early, high levels of lead exposure can damage the brain and nervous system, result in behavior and learning problems such as hyperactivity, or cause slow growth. Lead is of most concern in children, but it also can cause reproductive problems, high blood pressure, nervous disorders and memory problems in adults.

Gulliford said the number of children found with elevated lead levels declined from 3 million in 1978 to 300,000 in 2002. "That is a great improvement, but it's not enough," he said, adding that the goal is to eliminate childhood lead poisoning.

Lead exposure can be found not only in paint in older homes, but in soil around homes, household dust, drinking water and in some painted toys and furniture and even food stored in some lead-glazed pottery or crystal.

The new standards were praised by the Alliance for Healthy Homes. But the advocacy group also questioned why it took so long since Congress told the EPA in 1992 to address the dangers of lead paint during renovations.

"In the 16 years since we've been waiting for this rule, at least 17 million children have been exposed to harmful levels of lead unnecessarily," said Patrick MacRoy, the group's executive director. The alliance also said the rule should have stricter requirements such as banning "dry-scraping" of lead-based paint, which creates more dust.

Gulliford said the EPA's new standards for renovations are estimated to protect 1.4 million children, once the requirements are in full effect with an average additional cost of $35 per renovation project.

He said the rule won't go into effect until 2010 to give contractors time to comply.

Contractors will have to be certified. "A renovator failing to comply could potentially have their certification revoked or face a standard Toxic Substances Control Act penalty of $25,000 a day," said EPA spokesman Timothy Lyons.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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