Many of us grew up in homes containing lead and asbestos, and as a result, we may sometimes downplay the health hazards these substances pose to humans and the environment alike.

We might feel tempted to bypass the rules by removing these contaminants undercover — hoping that no one finds out.

Once touted as miracle materials for construction, these substances can now stir feelings of dread among owners of older apartment structures who fear the added costs of proper removal.

Yet, failure to comply with laws governing proper removal of these substances can pose health risks for workers and tenants alike, and result in hefty penalties — even potential jail time — for those who ignore the laws.

Examples of Penalties

In a widely publicized case last year, a West Hollywood apartment complex was shut down after a South Coast Air Quality Management District inspector found asbestos at a construction site following an anonymous tip. L.A. fire and hazmat officials decontaminated more than 15 units, whose inhabitants were ordered to vacate the building and leave everything behind, even their cars. A criminal investigation ensued.

In another case, a federal appellate court in Chicago in 2013 upheld a lower court’s 10-year prison sentence for a sprinkler contractor who removed asbestos from piping without the proper training or licensing, and disposed of the material in dumpsters and abandoned farmhouses. EPA Superfund contractors spent more than $47,000 cleaning up the soil and properly disposing of the more than 100 trash bags of asbestos-laden debris.

Figures for 2016 showed that the EPA issued more than 100 federal enforcement actions in that year alone against contractors, landlords and building owners who failed to protect communities and public health from exposure to lead. Fines frequently reached hundreds of thousands of dollars, with one case resulting in a $400,000 penalty.

What Does the Law Require?

Asbestos is a dangerous carcinogen, and exposure to high levels of lead can cause anemia, and even kidney and brain damage.

There are many laws regulating the testing and treatment of asbestos, lead and other potential hazardous materials used in older structures, particularly those built prior to 1979.

Whenever asbestos or lead are found, state, local and Environmental Protection Agency offices must be notified. The National Emission Standards of Hazardous Air Pollutants requires that work areas be sealed off and that waste be disposed of at a hazardous materials facility. Occupational Safety and Health Administration mandates strict safety protocols for workers, who are at risk of cancer, kidney and lung problems, even death when exposed.

All of this can add up to significant cost overruns, schedule delays and other problems.

That’s where the choice of a retrofit contractor becomes vitally important.

It Pays to Do Things Right

Selecting the right contractor ensures that laws and safety protocols are followed, and protects building owners and management companies from liabilities associated with the improper handling and disposal of toxic substances.

Generally speaking, a reputable company is going to follow the letter of the law. In the rare instance where something is not done right, that company — based on its name and solid reputation in the industry, its licensed and bonded status — is going to assume responsibility for its actions.

A less reputable company, is more likely to bypass regulations to slip in a lower bid on a project, is unlikely to stick around when legal problems arise.

Protect yourself and make sure you select a contractor who will follow the law and do the job right.