Painters uncover serious lead poisoning threat to St. Louis kids

St. LOUIS – In yet another case of careless work by non-union contractors, the Painters District Council here has discovered that the prime contractor and the two subcontractors doing paint removal and repainting at Sumner and Roosevelt High Schools have exposed the environment, the children who will be in the schools, and their own employees to poisonous lead dust.

And what makes the issue more pressing is the St. Louis city school system hired the prime contractor, Raineri Construction, to renovate the two schools where there are special facilities for pregnant teens. The special facilities also allow for teen mothers to bring their children to school where the kids receive care while the mothers attend class.

The school district says it was unaware of the issues with Raineri and its non-union subcontractors – Huddy Painting and Rice Painting, neither of whom have licenses to handle toxic materials like lead paint – until Painters District Council 2 investigated and then blew the whistle. The painters went to a school board meeting where they blew the whistle. Raineri had been awarded the contract after it submitted a bid that was $1.8 million below any of those submitted by its competitors, all of whom were unionized. Ranieri, like the subcontractors it uses, is not unionized.

After the disclosure, and a subsequent independent inspection that showed high levels of lead paint dust contamination throughout both schools, Raineri promised to clean up the buildings at the firm’s own expense. The Painters had discovered a wide variety of illegal and dangerous practices.

Neither Huddy nor Rice is certified to handle hazardous materials, a certification the city school board required when it put out a request for proposals for the work. The contractors are blowing paint dust directly out the windows into the neighborhoods surrounding the schools.

At Sumner, an industrial fan placed at an open window was the only equipment used to filter lead-based airborne particles out of the building. The poisonous dust and debris blows out onto the street, as children play kickball at the daycare center just 30 yards away. Non-union painters are working inside the buildings without personal protective gear such as respirators and other appropriate clothing required by federal safety laws when lead paint is being removed. To collect the thousands of lead-based paint chips that have fallen to the floors as they prepare for repainting, the non-union painters simply sweep them up and put them in regular trash bags, not special bags certified and designed to contain contaminated materials. The Painters could not discover where the contractors disposed of the bags of lead-based paint chips.

What makes the entire situations particularly galling to the Painters is that the school district’s request for proposals made specific safety demands that the three losing, and union, contractors fulfilled in their bids. Raineri bid $4.4 million. The other bids were all in a $6.2 million-$6.6 million range, which the Painters say indicates a realistic range to fulfill the school ditrict’s requirements…if you’re not cutting corners.

There are strict regulations covering the removal and disposal of lead-based paint, regulations that a contract must take into account when bidding, Smith adds.

“It’s no wonder Raineri could so drastically underbid all the other contractors,” Smith said. He points out Raineri and its painting subs did not apparently run the full gamut of pre-qualifications the school district required, where lead paint removal is mandated – blood testing, OSHA safety training, background checks, etc.- or the required containment to avoid lead contamination. “Those omissions certainly saved the contractor money,” Smith said, “But at whose expense?

“They are not meeting all of the district’s requirements,” he insisted. “For example, the Painters found three of the subcontractor’s workers have criminal backgrounds.”

Both Raineri and its subcontractors have questionable prior job safety records, which were not disclosed in Raineri’s bid, as required. OSHA found both Raineri and Rice guilty in past years of serious violations of job safety regulations, fining them $9,800 and $4,410, respectively.

OSHA is also investigating a May 9 explosion that destroyed a home in suburban St. Peters, where Huddy’s workers were painting the basement floor with epoxy. Fire Department officials said the blast apparently occurred after Huddy’s

painters failed to use adequate ventilation and failed to turn off the hot water tank pilot light that ignited the fumes.

Even if Roosevelt and Sumner did not provide facilities for pregnant teens and teens with babies, the potential for serious medical problems exists for anyone in them. “The bottom line, this is not a union issue right now, it’s a matter of safety for the neighborhood kids, the kids with young babies and who are pregnant coming into the school and the school’s staff,” Smith added.

“When the body is exposed to lead – by being inhaled, swallowed, or in a small number of cases, absorbed through the skin – it can act as a poison,” says Kids Health, an on-line information service by Nemours, a children’s health system. “Lead is toxic to everyone, but unborn babies and young children are at greatest risk for health problems from lead poisoning. Their smaller, growing bodies make them more susceptible to absorbing and retaining lead,” the Kids Health report adds.

Notes the report: “Most commonly, kids get lead poisoning from lead-based paint…”

A report from the Seattle and King County, Wash., Public Health Department, relates the dramatic impacts of lead poisoning on children: Learning disabilities resulting in decreased intelligence; attention deficit disorder; behavior issues; nervous system damage; speech and language impairment; and decreased muscle and bone growth.

Adds the report solemnly, “High levels of lead are life-threatening and can cause seizures, unconsciousness, and death.”

“The public needs to be aware of what the school administration has allowed to happen,” Smith added. “I can’t imagine parents not being upset about this very real hazard their children will be facing.”

And it’s not only children at risk. According to reports, adults, meaning the schools’ teaching staffs, are at risk as well. They would suffer greater chances of illness during pregnancy; harm to a fetus, including brain damage or death; fertility problems in both sexes; high blood pressure; digestive and nerve disorders; memory and concentration problems; and muscle and joint pain.

“With paint dust flying outside and getting into the cracks and crevices of the schools inside, to say nothing of it being deposited on equipment, desks, library books, shelving and so much more, real cleanup will be impossible,” pointed out Page Lucks, Painters District Council 2 organizer. “Lead dust is everywhere and no amount of ‘cleaning’ is going to eliminate it entirely, which means kids will be exposed to it. And we all know the hazards to kids from lead dust.”

The school district subsequently said no remodeling work is being done in the areas where pregnant teens and babies will be staying. The Painters have yet to confirm those areas are totally clean and safe.

Special correspondent Mary Ann Holly contributed to this story. Ed Finkelstein, the author, is publisher of the St. Louis Labor Tribune.

Photo: Within 30 yards of the overhaul of Summer High School in St. Louis, where lead dust has been blowing out the windows, there is a child day care center and playground. Photo courtesy of St. Louis Labor Tribune.


Ed Finkelstein
Ed Finkelstein


Ed Finkelstein is publisher and editor of the St. Louis/Southern Illinois Labor Tribune.