If you own a home built before 1978 (when lead paint was banned) or you are thinking about purchasing an older home and renovating it, there are things you will need to do to protect you and your family from lead exposure.
The first thing to understand is that lead is highly toxic.
Lead isn’t merely an undesirable substance it can cause very serious health issues. The World Health Organization has a lot of information about it. In adults, it can cause high blood pressure, organ damage, and even death. There is no known level of exposure that is safe.
In children, the effects can be devastating. Young children can ingest 4-5 times as much lead into their bodies as adults. Small children can suffer brain and nervous system problems. Pregnant women can suffer damage to their babies, including low birth weight and birth defects.
A little history: Before 1978, lead was a common additive to paint because it was viewed as very durable and desirable for its colors. Most government buildings were painted with lead paint. By 1940 it started declining in popularity but it was still used for decades after that.
- In 1955 the paint industry started a voluntary standard to phase out the use of lead in paint in interiors. In the decades that followed, the use of lead paint in exteriors declined.
- The Lead Poisoning Prevention Act was passed in 1971 and in 1978 the federal government banned lead paint for use by consumers.
For decades the “safe” amount of lead in the human body has been somewhat controversial. As noted in The History of Lead: “When the Lead Poisoning Prevention Act was passed in 1971, a blood lead level of 60 micrograms per deciliter was considered safe. In 1991, acknowledging the change was based on “very recent research,” the CDC lowered the blood lead level of concern to 10 or above, where it remained until 2012, when the CDC established a new measure of blood lead levels – the “reference” level – that was set to include the highest 2.5 percent of tested children. That reference value, which is not health-based and will change over time, is currently five micrograms per deciliter.”
The EPA lists a number of possible sources for lead in the home:
- Lead paint may be under layers of newer paint. If the paint is in good shape, the lead paint is usually not a problem. Deteriorating lead-based paint (peeling, chipping, chalking, cracking, damaged, or damp) is a hazard and needs immediate attention.
- It may also be a hazard when found on surfaces that children can chew or that get a lot of wear-and-tear, such as:
- Windows and window sills
- Doors and door frames
- Stairs, railings, banisters, and porches
- Be sure to keep all paint in excellent shape and clean up dust frequently. Read about simple steps to protect your family from lead hazards (PDF)
- Lead in household dust results from indoor sources such as deteriorating lead-based paint.
- Lead dust can also be tracked into the home from soil outside that is contaminated by deteriorated exterior lead-based paint and other lead sources, such as industrial pollution and past use of leaded gasoline. Read more about lead dust.
- Renovation, repair or painting activities can create toxic lead dust when painted surfaces are disturbed or demolished. Learn more about hiring lead-safe certified contractors.
- Pipes and solder — Lead is used in some water service lines and household plumbing materials. Lead can leach, or enter the water, as water flows through the plumbing. Lead pipes and lead solder were commonly used until 1986. Read more about lead in drinking water.
Lead can also be ingested from sources one might not ordinarily think of, like food.The World Health Organization identifies several other sources:
- inhalation of lead particles generated by burning materials containing lead, for example, during smelting, recycling, stripping leaded paint, and using leaded gasoline or leaded aviation fuel; and
- ingestion of lead-contaminated water (from leaded pipes), and food (from lead-glazed or lead-soldered containers).
- The use of some traditional cosmetics and medicines can also result in lead exposure.
The interior is not the only place you may find lead. The EPA advises “Check the exterior of your home, including porches and fences, for flaking or deteriorating lead-based paint that may contaminate soil in your yard or be tracked into your house. To avoid tracking contaminated soil into your house, put doormats outside and inside all entryways, and remove your shoes before entering.”
Lead paint can be found in unusual items such as toys, cosmetics, and art supplies.
So here are tips if you think there may be lead hazards in your home:
GET A HOME INSPECTION
You can use a commercially sold do-it-yourself kit to test for lead, but it’s not the best idea. They are not reliable. The Environmental Protection Agency offers a lot of about lead risk assessment and inspection on its website, including how to find a certified home inspector.
There are many advantages to using a professional inspector. A trained, professional inspector can utilize a variety of testing methods in your home. It’s more than just inspecting paint. They can run tests of soil, dust, and any flaking or chipping paint. Some may use an x-ray fluorescence machine. You can also call 1-800-424-LEAD.
The EPA has specific guidelines as to the difference between an inspection and a risk assessment. “An inspection is a surface-by-surface investigation to determine whether there is lead-based paint in a home or child-occupied facility, and where it is located. Inspections can be legally performed only by certified inspectors or risk assessors. A risk assessment is an on-site investigation to determine the presence, type, severity, and location of lead-based paint hazards (including lead hazards in paint, dust, and soil) and provides suggested ways to control them. Risk assessments can be legally performed only by certified risk assessors. Lead-based paint risk assessments are particularly helpful in determining sources of current exposure and in designing possible solutions.”
There are many ways to get rid of lead hazards in your home, but it’s more than just painting. A certified professional will know that the EPA has to be notified, for example, about abatement activities.
The EPA states that “A certified firm must notify EPA at least 5 business days prior to conducting lead-based paint abatement activities, with one exception. When abatement activities are required in response to either an Elevated Blood Lead Level determination or emergency abatement order, notice must be provided no later than the day abatement activities begin.”
IF YOU ARE GOING TO RENOVATE
Renovation often causes a lot of dust in the air from paint sanding or destruction of walls or baseboards. The dust can be contained, however. The EPA’s 2008 Lead-Based Paint Renovation, Repair and Painting (RRP) Rule (as amended in 2010 and 2011), is to protect the public from lead-based paint hazards associated with renovation, repair and painting activities. The EPA website has a lot of helpful information about renovation safety.
The most important aspect of understanding lead hazards in the home is that if you even suspect there may be lead exposure risk, get a home inspection done. Professionals trained in inspecting homes for lead will help keep you and your family safe.