During the 19th century, U.S. paint manufacturers began to use “white lead” as a pigment for house paint because it could be tinted a variety of colors and was thought to be a protective coating. Although lead poisoning from paint was documented as a serious threat to children in the early 1900s, lead was used in paint on exterior and interior of homes, woodworking, furniture and even cribs, for decades.In July of 1786, Benjamin Franklin wrote a letter (“The Famous Franklin Letter On Lead Poisoning“) in which he detailed his observations of the effects of lead on the body. Franklin wrote, “You will see by it, that the Opinion of this mischievous Effect from Lead, is at least above Sixty years old; and you will observe with Concern how long a useful Truth may be known, and exist, before it is generally receiv’d and practis’d on.”Mr. Franklin’s observations were correct. It was not until 1978 that the federal government banned the use of lead-based paint in housing. Therefore, if you live in a home that was built before 1978, chances are good that it contains some lead-based paint. Dust and paint chips from leaded paint can cause serious health hazards. Lead chips and dust can get on surfaces and objects that people touch. Settled lead dust can reenter the air when people vacuum, sweep or walk through it.Lead-based paint that is in good condition is generally not a health hazard. Leaded paint that is peeling, chipping, chalking or cracking can pose a serious health hazard and needs prompt attention. Removing lead paint improperly can increase the hazard to your family by spreading even more lead dust around the house. Precautions need to be taken before beginning remodeling or renovations on surfaces containing lead-based paint. Lead dust can form when lead-based paint is dry scraped, dry sanded or heated.

Dust also forms when painted surfaces bump or rub together. Lead-based paint found on surfaces that children chew or on surfaces that get a lot of wear-and-tear also can be a serious health hazard.

These areas, known as friction surfaces, include:

  • windows and window sills
  • stairs, railings and bannisters
  • doors and door frames
  • porches and fences

Federal Disclosure Rule

As of December 6, 1996, a new federal law requires homeowners and landlords to disclose the known presence of lead-based paint to all prospective buyers and/or renters of pre-1978 residences. Prospective buyers of pre-1978 homes will have a 10-day period to check for the presence of lead-based paint hazards before becoming obligated to a sales contract. The law also requires renovators to provide a pamphlet detailing the hazards of lead based-paint before beginning work on pre-1978 dwellings.

How To Test For Lead-Based Paint

You can test your home for lead-based paint with an inexpensive home test kit, such as: Lead Check Swabs; Know Lead; Lead Alert; or Enzone Products. Follow the manufacturers’ directions on these home test kits. The disposable tests turn pink when lead is present.

You also can have a qualified professional perform a paint inspection and/or risk assessment on your home to determine the lead content of painted surfaces and the sources of lead exposure. A trained professional will use an x-ray fluorescence (XRF) machine to locate the lead-based paint and take dust samples to determine if an immediate health risk exists.

What To Do About Lead-Based Paint

If your home contains lead-based paint, you can remedy and/or reduce the risk of lead-contaminated dust hazards by: (1) removing the lead-based paint from the home; (2) covering the lead-based paint by encapsulation (a barrier formed using an approved liquid applied coating or an adhesive bonded covering material) or enclosure (installation of a rigid, durable barrier that is mechanically attached to building components, with all edges and seams sealed); or (3) controlling the dust by repairing damaged painted surfaces, performing regular maintenance and cleaning weekly with a lead-specific detergent.

Although removing the lead-based paint from the home can eliminate lead-contaminated dust generated from lead-based paint, it is a very costly, complicated process and must be done by a trained certified professional. If the leaded paint is removed improperly, the final result could be a greater concentration of lead-contaminated dust, causing a greater and more immediate health risk.

Although encapsulation or enclosure is generally less expensive than removing the lead-based paint, it can be costly. Encapsulation or enclosure does not remove the lead-based paint from the home. In these processes, a trained certified professional uses approved products to cover the lead-based paint to make the dwelling lead-safe. Because the leaded paint remains underneath the covering, continued monitoring and maintenance of the structure is necessary. Any damage to the covering, such as water or structural damage, must be repaired. Additionally, if there are future renovations or remodeling of the home, precautions need to be taken for lead-contaminated dust hazards.

Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) studies, Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) studies, and independent studies have shown that in-place management of lead-based paint is the most cost effective way to significantly reduce the hazard of lead-contaminated dust. In-place management makes a house lead-safe, rather than lead-free. Costs to perform in-place management activities is pennies per square foot, rather than several dollars per square foot to perform the other methods. These activities involve the repairing of areas where paint is chipping, cracking, chalking or peeling, and performing specialized cleaning on a regular basis with a lead-specific detergent.

Lead-Specific Detergents

Lead-specific detergents will reduce elevated lead-contaminated dust levels to below current government standards. These types of products are specifically formulated to attack lead compounds and have fewer variables than tri-sodium phosphate (TSP) or household cleaners. TSP is a severe eye and skin irritant and can dull or damage painted surfaces and floors. Because TSP has a negative effect on the environment, its use in consumer products is restricted and/or banned in virtually all states.

More importantly, household cleaners and TSP are not effective in removing lead-contaminated dust. According to a recent study, Evaluation of the Clean-up of Lead Paint Dust in Houses, performed by the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC), “Cleaning of lead paint dust by either i) broom cleaning and a utility vacuum, or ii) household vacuum, followed by mopping with a household cleaner, will not meet either the current or proposed HUD clearance criteria.”

To view the entire CMHC study, click here.