If you’re house-hunting and find yourself in an older home, one material you may want to ask about is lead paint. Lead-based paint is commonly found in older homes and can cause a number of health risks to many people, especially elderly, pregnant women, or young children.
This guide will tackle the dangers of lead pain in the home and provide you with critical information you need to know about the details of lead-paint. What is it, where it is found, why is it dangerous, and how to test and remove it.
What is lead-based paint?
Lead-based paint, sometimes just referred to as lead paint, used to be a very common construction material. It was originally added to paint when it was discovered that the presence of lead sped up the drying process and increased durability.
Lead paint was also more resistant to corrosion and moisture, meaning less maintenance over the course of time.
In the early 1900’s people began to start to understand the dangers of lead paint which lead to a slow resistance against the use of the material, despite its advantages.
- Why use lead in paint? by Chemistry World
- Lead Compounds by EPA.gov
- What is lead? by Agency for Toxic Substances & Disease Registry (ATSDR)
History of Concern for Lead Paint
- 1786: Benjamin Franklin warned a friend about the dangers of lead paint in a written letter
- 1886: German health laws prohibited women and children from working in factories that processed lead paint.
- 1904: Sherwin-Williams, an established paint company, warned of the dangers of lead paint, citing a French expert for claims that lead paint was “poisonous in a large degree, both for the workmen and for the inhabitants of a house painted with lead colors”.
- 1921: The League of Nations began efforts to ban lead paint.
- 1971: President Richard Nixon signed the Lead-Based Paint Poisoning Prevention Act into law, which restricted lead content in paint used in housing built with federal funds
- 1978: Federal government banned consumer uses of lead paint
Where is lead paint commonly found?
Lead paint was a common finish in most residential homes built before 1950, as it wasn’t federally banned from use until 1978. Before 1950, this substance was commonly used for most residential applications including: exterior walls, interior walls, baseboards, molding, doors, and window trim.
If your home was built after 1950, but before 1978, there is a chance that the walls might not be lead-based paint, but it is likely that the other applications could still be hazardous.
Why is lead paint dangerous?
Lead paint is dangerous in part because it seems so innocent. After all, how can something just sitting on a wall hurt you? The answers may surprise you.
Lead exposure grows into lead poisoning by small, repetitive accounts of exposure to the substance. It could take months or years for lead exposure to have detectable symptoms on your body, but the truth of the matter is, there is no safe level of lead exposure.
Lead paint can be especially destructive in the way that it can damage your internal organs and nervous and immune systems. Lead paint can affect your:
In short, with enough prolonged exposure, lead-based paint can transform into lead poisoning and affect every single system and organ in your body. In some cases, the symptoms may even be asymptomatic, meaning that it negatively affects your body without any “real” symptoms appearing for quite some time.
This makes it hard to catch the cause early on and sometimes when treatment is delayed, lead poisoning can rise to dangerous levels with non-reversible or even fatal effects.
RELATED – What lead does to the body?
How does lead enter the body?
Lead can get inside the body in many different ways, but some of the most common ways include:
- Putting objects coated with lead-based paint directly in the mouth
- Touching lead painted objects and then putting fingers in the mouth
- Inhaling dust or powders from lead-based paints
What is lead poisoning?
If left undetected, lead exposure can grow into lead poisoning.
Lead exposure can represent an isolated incident of being exposed to lead-based paints. It can be a one-time event or something that occurs only a handful of time.
Lead poisoning occurs when a person is exposed to lead-based paint for many months or even years. Even though the effects of lead poisoning may not surface immediately, the hazards can be lasting and cause permanent damage to the human body.
NOTE: Keep in mind that no amount of exposure to lead paint is recommended or safe. And any level of exposure to lead can cause permanent damage.
Although lead poisoning can have very serious effects on the body, it feels necessary to also point out this condition is relatively rare, with fewer than 200,000 cases in the US per year. Light exposure to lead-based paints does not always result in lead poisoning.
Who is at the most risk for lead poisoning?
If exposed to lead-based paint, there are certain age groups that are most “at risk”. This selection includes:
- Young children: Young children are more likely to put their hands in their mouth or pick up small particles on the floor and ingest them. For these reasons, lead paint can be especially toxic to this age group. In addition, children also have weaker immune systems and may be more susceptible to the effects of lead poisoning.
- Pregnant women: When women are pregnant, their immune system is also weakened, putting them at risk for dangers like lead exposure. On top of the weakened immune system for the mother, lead poisoning also has the ability to cross the “placental barrier”. This is the barrier that separates the mother from the baby. During pregnancy, it is critical to keep this barrier secured and free of toxic bacteria which would be very harmful to an unborn baby.
- Elderly people: The elderly is the last group of people who are notably at risk for lead poisoning and that’s mostly because of their weakened immune system, similar to the other groups listed above.
- People exposed to large amounts of lead (as fumes, dust, flakes, or liquid paint): This group could sound obvious, but people who repeatedly expose themselves to harmful lead-based paint are likely at the highest risk for developing symptoms and the harmful effects of lead poisoning. This type of exposure could take months or years, but is generally a slow (and sometimes invisible) process.
How to test for lead-based paint?
Think your home may have hidden layers of lead-based paint? Testing for lead paint is the most effective way to know if your home (or your family) is at risk.
Testing for lead paint in your home can be done by a professional or by yourself. If personally testing it, be sure to wear respiratory protection when you’re doing the test to protect against any potential hazardous layers of lead paint that you might find.
To test for lead paint, follow the steps below:
- Carefully scrape away individual layers of paint from the wall in question.
- Test flakes from each layer, keeping in mind that older homes may have multiple layers of paint layered on top of each-other.
It is critically important to remember than even if a layer of lead-based paint has been painted over, that doesn’t always mean that the toxicity risk is gone.
RELATED – Testing for and Removing Lead Paint
If there is any damages (cracks, chips, bubbling, etc.) on any portion of a lead painted wall, that means that the wall is unsealed and potentially dangerous to yourself or your family.
Taking necessary precautions and then effectively repairing and repainting the surface is the best course of action to minimize the risk of lead-based paint.
How to remove lead-based paint?
The best ways to remove lead-based paint break down into two basic methods.
- Painting over lead paint
- Removing and resurfacing lead paint
Is it safe to paint over lead paint?
The question of whether or not is it safe to paint over lead paint has a lot to do with the overall condition of the lead paint.
YES IT’S SAFE: If the surface that was painted with lead-based paint is in good condition, you can likely paint over the wall as a safe and effective way of preventing exposure to the dangerous paint.
If you decide to paint lead paint walls, you’ll want to follow the steps below:
- Carefully inspect the painted wall and examine for cracks, bubbles, or chipped areas. If the walls are in good condition, continue to step 2.
- Paint the wall with an encapsulant type of paint, which is good at providing a strong enough sealant to control the effects of the lead-based paint.
NO, IT’S NOT SAFE: If the painted surface is in poor condition, it is not recommended to paint over the walls. Any chips, cracks, or bubbling of the original paint make it virtually impossible to seal over the paint.
In these cases, you’ll want to follow the steps below:
- Contact a certified lead paint specialist to come in and safely remove the lead paint, prior to painting.
- After deemed safe, you can paint the walls with any non-lead paint.
How to Remove Lead-Based Paint
If repainting over the lead paint is not an option, you’ll want to effectively remove it. As mentioned above, this is best done by a certified lead paint specialist. These specialists have the know-how and the equipment to safely remove lead paint without posing additional risk to your home, family, or themselves.
If you want to remove the paint yourself, there are a few tips and tricks you can follow to safely treat the area. See resources below.
- How to Remove Lead Paint Safely by the Family Handyman
- How To: Remove Lead Paint by Bob Vila
- How to Remove Lead Paint by WikiHow
Safety Precautions Around Lead Paint
For DIYers that want the 4-1-1 on removing lead paint front your home, here are a few recommendations:
Tip #1: Paper masks will not protect you from lead-based paint. Be sure to use a full face mask with respirator when dealing with lead paints. This will help to create the strongest level of defense against you and the toxic lead-based airborne particles.
Tip #2: Avoid eating, drinking, or smoking while treating lead paint. Once disturbed, lead paint particles can easily fill the air and become an airborne hazard. Eating, drinking, and smoking make it more likely that you may ingest the toxic particles while you work.
Tip #3: Do not permit pregnant women or children to enter the space when paint removal is in progress. These age groups are especially susceptible to the dangers of lead paint
Overall, lead paint can be a real hazard for homes and the families that reside in them. This is especially true for homes built before the 1970s, as there was less widespread concern about the lasting effects of this dangerous substance.
Lead paint poses the biggest concern when it is damaged — ie: chipped, cracked, or bubbling.
People at the highest risk of lead poisoning includes:
- Young children (especially those under 6 years old, as they are more likely to put their hands in their mouth)
- Pregnant women (since lead particles have the potential to cross the placental barrier which makes it a hazard for the unborn child as well)
- Elderly people (or those with weakened immune systems)
To minimize the risk of lead paint, be sure to identify and eliminate it wherever you can.
- Test areas for presence of lead paint.
- Paint over lead paint with an encapsulant, when the paint is in good condition.
- If in poor condition, remove or repair the paint first prior to re-coating it.
- With the right equipment, you can safely remove lead paint or you can hire a professional.