Hazardous Household Materials: Lead Paint

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The dangers of lead paint have been widely publicized, but how do you know if your family is in danger? The existence of lead paint in a home or building does not pose an immediate danger except under certain conditions. Before you panic, know the facts and learn how to mitigate the dangers of lead paint in your home.

Lead paint exposure
The Center for Disease Control (CDC) estimates that more than 300,000 children in the United States have high concentrations of lead in their blood. The effects of high concentrations of lead can be severe. Lead poisoning disrupts most of the major systems in the body, including the brain, central nervous system, kidneys, and blood cells. Prolonged exposure can cause convulsions, coma, and in severe cases, death.

Most commonly, lead affects unborn and developing children. It can delay physical and mental development and result in lower IQ, shorter attention spans and increased behavioral problems. The younger the child is, the more he is at risk. In addition to greater vulnerability to developing tissue damage, children under the age of six are far more likely to chew on things that may have lead paint, like toys or crib bars, and less likely to wash their hands after touching something coated with dust that contains lead.

Adults can also suffer from exposure to lead paint. Lead poisoning in adults manifests a wide range of symptoms including high blood pressure, low sperm count, joint and muscle pain, memory loss, and digestive issues. These symptoms are easily mistaken for other ailments.

Where lead is found?
Lead is found in a number of products and in soil and water, but the most common source of contamination is paint. Lead was banned from use in paint in the United States in 1978, but we continue to import from countries that do not have similar laws. The greatest threat of dangerous exposure to lead comes from the renovation of homes built prior to 1978. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), millions of residential properties still have lead paint. It breaks down to 24% of homes built between 1960 and 1978, 69% of homes built between 1940 and 1960, and 87% of homes built prior to 1940.

Is my family at risk?
The good news is that in most cases, no. For homes that have been well maintained, there is little risk. The lead paint is sealed under layers of fresh paint and poses no danger. If you have an older home – especially one built before 1960 – inspect it regularly for peeling or damaged paint. The biggest threat will be during renovations that involve paint stripping, sanding, grinding, or heat removal.

Demolishing walls can also be an issue, since the dust created by any process can throw lead-laden dust into the air. For your family’s health and safety, before renovations on an older home, test the paint for lead. You have several options for testing, including professional testing in your home, sending paint chips to a lab for testing, or DIY. Purchasing a testing kit is the least expensive option and is regarded to be fairly reliable, but if you aren’t satisfied with the results, sending samples to a lab is very reliable and costs $20 to $50 per sample.

Most health departments offer screening for lead poisoning. If you suspect your children have been exposed, live in an area with older homes in deteriorated condition, or note behavioral or health changes in your kids, have them tested. The symptoms of lead poisoning are very similar to a number of conditions, and the only way to diagnose the problem is by medical testing.

New laws concerning renovation and repair
On April 22, 2010, a new law concerning lead paint went into effect requiring safe work practices, verification, and documentation by professional contractors. This new law is designed to reduce the incidence of lead poisoning and protect homeowners and the surrounding community. It applies to any house built before 1978 that has not been certified lead free by a Certified Risk Assessor, Lead Inspector, or Certified Renovator. The only exception to this law is minor repairs involving less than six square feet inside or 20 square feet outside.

What the new laws mean to you?
The new laws are designed to keep your family healthy and reduce contamination of your home and the ground around it. The downside is that your next renovation project will cost more and if your home tests for lead, it will be harder to find an RRP certified contractor. However, lead paint abatement only has to be done one time if you’re redoing the entire house. After that, you can safely tear down walls, repaint, replace windows, or do any other repair work without fear of lead poisoning.

Why the benefits outweigh the cost
Here’s why the old methods of paint removal are dangerous, the reason for the new law, and why you should appreciate it:

Using a heat gun is a typical method of stripping old paint before repainting. Heating lead paint releases the lead into the air as a gas that can be inhaled during the process, but the danger doesn’t end there. As the gas cools, the lead condenses back into a solid and falls, coating everything it touches with what appears to be ordinary dust: the ground, your kids’ toys, your plants and trees, and if you have one, your garden.

When it rains, this lead mixes with the rainwater and some of it seeps deeper into the ground. Eventually, a percentage will reach the water table. Contamination from one house may not be an issue, but there are millions of houses, and whole neighborhoods contaminated with lead paint.

Another method of paint removal is blasting with pressurized water. This usually results in large flakes of contaminated paint falling into the yard around your house, and it removes only loose paint, it does not strip all paint. Scraping causes the same issue.

Sanding throws dust into the air to be breathed in and mix with the soil. One of the main issues with soil contamination is that it’s not going anywhere. You may not have children in the house now, but what about 20 years from now? Homeowners have a responsibility to grandchildren, future homeowners, and the surrounding community.

The new laws require painting contractors to wear protective clothing for their own safety, to use paint removal methods that create the least amount of contamination possible, to remove paint debris caused by the process and to vacuum or mop up all the dust left behind by the renovation process. In addition, they are required to document the process and test the quality of the air.

Minimizing exposure
There are ways to minimize exposure without renovating your entire home. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) recommends the following:

  • Replace painted trim and doorframes. This can be done easily and without creating a lot of dust.
  • Paint over, seal, or cover lead-based paint. This isn’t a permanent solution, but it will last for a long time. Inspect regularly to ensure that no painted areas peel, especially in homes with young children.
  • Control dust. Dust can be contaminated with lead, so clean surfaces and wet mop floors using a high phosphorous (at least 5%) cleaning solution. Vacuum with a HEPA filter.
  • Avoid sanding or other projects that will create dust.

The bottom line
If you live in a home built before 1960, unless it has already been completely renovated, it probably contains lead paint. While it is wise to monitor the condition of the paint for peeling and repaint before the paint begins to peel, your family is unlikely to be in immediate danger. If you are planning a major renovation, hire a contractor with an RRP certification. It’s not only the law; it’s healthier for you, your family, and the environment. It is also wise to relocate young children and pregnant women during the renovation.

Before embarking on DIY projects in an older home, evaluate the situation for potential dangers. Have the paint tested, and if it is positive for lead, check the EPA recommendations for professionals. If you’re an experienced do-it-yourselfer, you can follow the same procedures and do the work using the proper gear and equipment.

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Cate Morgan-Harlow

Cate Morgan-Harlow is an all arounder, writing about how-to, DIY, and design with gusto. She is a shadowy figure with a mysterious past.