Demolitions and lead dust: Is there a problem?

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Dust rises as excavators work on demolishing a commercial building in early April at Calhoun Street and Rudisill Boulevard. The wind that day blew some of the dust east across Calhoun Street.
The excavator bucket reaches up to an older home and pulls down a portion of the wall. Later, it will be scooping up the debris and dropping it into a dumpster or dump truck for disposal. As the excavator works, dust can float into the air and drift toward nearby homes. That could be a problem if the home being demolished was built before 1978, the year the federal government banned the use of lead in paint.
Lead dust can be ingested by young children, who can suffer lead poisoning. High lead levels in a child’s blood can cause problems such as decreased intelligence, behavioral issues and criminal activity, said Dave Fiess, director of vector control and environmental services for the Fort Wayne-Allen County Department of Health.Children also can ingest lead from chips of old, lead-based paint or from lead dust created by opening and closing windows painted with lead-based paint.
The city of Detroit has a major program to remove and demolish abandoned and blighted homes. The city also has areas where a significant percentage of children living in that area have elevated levels of lead in their blood, which is a problem the city is trying to correct.
In early 2017, the Detroit Health Department’s Task Force on Demolitions and Health reported that health department analysis found children living near home demolition sites appeared to be at higher risk for elevated lead levels in their blood — especially from May through September — than children in that area who didn’t live near a home demolition site. The analysis didn’t show a higher risk from October through April, however, the report said. The task force didn’t offer an explanation for the latter finding, but those months are ones when people are more likely to have their home’s windows closed. To reduce the risk of lead dust contamination from a demolition, the city of Detroit has adopted demolition protocols that require contractors to provide advance warning to neighbors living near a demolition site, it said on the city’s website. Contractors also must spray water on a house before and during demolition, and spray the demolition debris as it is loaded and hauled away, the website said.
This year, Detroit also has halted demolitions of older homes in five ZIP code areas in the city from May through September, the Detroit News reported March 20. The city took that action to prevent the spread of lead dust in areas that already have a high rate of children with elevated lead levels in their blood, the News report said. The issue of lead dust and home demolition also was explored this spring on the public radio investigative reporting show “Reveal.”
The health department’s lead program worked with 75 Allen County children impacted by lead in 2017 and 127 children affected by lead in 2016, Fiess said. “This is a problem anywhere in Fort Wayne or in our county where homes are older than 1978,” he said.
About 60 percent of homes in Allen County are older than 1978, said Josh Blauvelt, the Fort Wayne-Allen County Department of Health’s assistant director of vector control and environmental services. The percentage is higher in the city because it has more older homes. The Allen County Building Department issued demolition permits for 293 homes and 66 commercial buildings in 2017 and 325 homes and 45 commercial buildings in 2016. The building department must approve all demolitions, even if the process has been initiated by another entity, such as the city of Fort Wayne’s Neighborhood Code Compliance department, said John Caywood, Allen County building commissioner.
Federal and Indiana law don’t require any testing or abatement action for lead before or during demolition of a house or commercial building, Caywood said. The Allen County Building Department doesn’t require contractors to spray water on buildings being demolished because the water could wash lead dust into storm sewers and then into local rivers, Caywood said.“I think that is almost worse for the environment than eight hours of demolition,” he said. His department hasn’t received any complaints about lead dust from demolitions, he noted. “Most people are very happy to see a blighted house removed from their neighborhood,” he said. The Building Department does require that buildings be tested for asbestos and that the asbestos be removed or controlled prior to demolition, Caywood said.
Most demolition contractors in Allen County collapse the home or building into its basement and then remove the debris, Caywood said. That approach should reduce the spread of dust and debris, he said. In most cases, local demolition contractors have a house down within 90 minutes, which is much less than the eight hours of exposure allowed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Caywood said. “Based on my experience with lead and demolition laws, I think we are doing a pretty good job of protecting people,” he said. He also provided a report on a study comparing lead dust impact from the demolition of 67 scattered single-family homes in Chicago and the lead dust produced from demolishing about 500 adjoining multifamily row houses in Baltimore. Crews demolished the Chicago homes with minimal dust control measures, while workers in Baltimore used continuous water spraying, barriers and deconstruction, the latter of which involves taking the house apart rather than knocking it down. While the study, “Lead Particulate Deposition from Housing Demolition,” reported most people experience only brief exposure to lead dust from a demolition, the study found the Baltimore project — which used various dust-control measures — produced only about a third as much lead dust as the Chicago demolitions.
The Fort Wayne-Allen County Department of Health would prefer that contractors spray water on a home or building during demolition to reduce dust. “It’s always best to work wet” during a demolition, Blauvelt said.
Jack Leonard, president of the Environmental Management Institute in the Speedway area of Indianapolis, agrees, saying dry demolitions create a lot of dust. Leonard, whose organization teaches adults how to manage hazardous materials, also is a board member of Improving Kids’ Environment, an Indianapolis nonprofit working to protect children from environmental health hazards. Blauvelt said the health department typically receives notices from the Allen County Building Department about approved demolition permits. He then cross-references those demolition locations with existing cases where the health department is working with a family to help children recover from elevated lead levels. If the demolition is scheduled one or two houses away from one of those families, he notifies the family to keep their home’s windows closed during the demolition to prevent lead dust from getting into the homeIn emergency situations when a building is deemed a safety risk, demolition can be ordered immediately without notifying the health department, Caywood said. An example of an emergency demolition would be taking down a home considered unsafe after a major fire.
If neighboring residents believe they are being endangered by a demolition, they have some options:
• If a demolition is impacting neighboring residents in a hazardous way, the Allen County Building Department can stop the demolition if notified of the problem, Caywood said. Most complaints about demolitions result from debris hitting a neighboring house, he added.
• The Indiana Department of Environmental Management’s (IDEM) fugitive dust rule applies at any demolition or construction site, said Brady Hagerty, IDEM digital media manager. The rule requires that appropriate actions be taken to prevent dust from leaving the property.
Spraying water on a building and debris during demolition knocks down dust and keeps the debris wet so it can be hauled off to an approved disposal facility, Hagerty said. “Oversaturation could possibly cause particulate matter to puddle on-site or possibly wash off site,” Hagerty said. But IDEM also has water run-off regulations intended to reduce pollution from sites involving 1 acre or more of land disturbance, he said. For example, a sediment-control measure could be installed to trap sediment and prevent it from entering the storm sewer system near a home demolition site.
The Allen County Building Department guidelines for demolitions include:
• The demolition permit holder must comply with all laws and ordinances for disposal of demolition debris and trash and must avoid trespassing on private or public property.
• Once a demolition starts, the contractor has five days to complete all of the work, including removing building debris and clearing the site.
• The demolition permit holder must maintain control of the area to eliminate hazards to area residents.
• Basement walls and other concrete slabs, sidewalks and similar items must be removed to at least 3 feet below ground level. At least 20 percent of the basement floor must be broken up to allow water to drain through and contractors must use proper backfill soil.
• Sewer and water lines must be plugged.
• The demolition contractor must pass two inspections during the work, one for demolition of the basement walls and basement floor, and one for when the site has been backfilled to ground level.
For more about demolition guidelines, call the building department at 1-260-449-7131.
As an example of how other cities handle demolitions, the city of Detroit now follows the following demolition protocol:
• Remove asbestos: All homes being demolished with federal funds must have asbestos removed before demolition.
• Advance notice: Door hanger signs must be placed in advance on homes around a planned demolition site to let residents know what to do to avoid dust or other possible hazards.
• Dust control: Contractors must spray water on homes before and during demolition to minimize dust. Demolition debris also must be sprayed with water as it is loaded up and hauled away.
• Air quality testing: The city will test the air at demolition sites to ensure no harmful contaminants are released into the air.
• Stiff penalties: Contractors caught violating Detroit Building Authority requirements will be suspended or terminated from the demolition program.
By Kevin Kilbane of

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