A Brief Dive Into the History of Lead Paint

It is no big secret that the use of lead-based paint is considered extremely hazardous in the United States. However, you may be surprised to learn that many countries have little or no regulation of the dangerous substance.

These days, there are plenty of water and oil-based alternatives to lead-based paint. So, why do so many countries still utilize a material that has proven to be potentially fatal? Let’s explore the uses of lead paint through history to discover how the United States and 72 other countries came to decide on banning the toxic paint.

Inception and Beginning Uses

Unbeknownst to many, lead paint was being produced as early as the 4th century BC. Specifically, the paint color lead white was popularized by artists and laborers due to its thickness, density, and opacity.

People began adding lead to paint to accelerate drying times and create a long-lasting finish. These qualities of lead paint were incredibly useful in past times when building construction was a much more tedious task. However, at the beginning of its use, many people were completely oblivious to the potential environmental and health problems that could arise from lead-based paint ingestion and inhalation.

Despite its growing popularity in both interior and exterior settings, there are some medieval texts that warned against the dangers of the paint, claiming it could lead to “apoplexy, paralysis, or epilepsy.” 

In the early days of its use, cans of lead-based paint could contain up to 70% lead, which is an absolutely insane percentage by today’s standards. Despite this fact, and the growing concerns about health issues related to the paint, consumers continued to use it well into the 19th century on a variety of surfaces.

Peak Use

The widespread use of lead paint continued across the Americas and Europe. It was popularized during colonial times for use on interiors and exteriors of homes, due in part to its durability. In the United States, the peak of lead paint use was in the 19th century. 

In fact, you’ll find that most homes built before 1978 in the United States contain some traces of lead-based paints. That is why it’s so critical to continue testing lead levels in living areas, even in present-day, to ensure the safety of your children, pets, family, and friends.

While the use of lead-based paints was rampant in houses across America, use in the art world was dwindling by the 20th century. Officials in Europe were growing increasingly concerned with the health risks of lead paint, and the lead white color had been replaced by zinc and titanium white instead.

By the 1920s, more and more consumers were becoming aware of the health and environmental concerns surrounding lead paints. Use throughout Europe began to taper off, but in America, the transition away from lead-based paints took much longer.

Growing Health Concerns

By the beginning of the 20th century, health concerns surrounding lead and lead-based products were starting to mount. The use of lead paint in construction was detrimental to the health of many consumers, with many symptoms of lead poisoning possibly leading to death.

Lead paint can be incredibly damaging to the human nervous system. It can stunt bodily growth and brain development. Organs are also greatly affected by lead poisoning, with it often leading to kidney and other organ failures.

Now you might think, “well who in their right mind would eat paint?” Which isn’t such a silly question if you’re an adult. When lead paint peels, it often falls off in sheets or chips.

So, just sweep them up, right? 

Well, the special thing about lead paint chips, and the dangerous thing, is that they taste sweet. This is why lead poisoning in the United States became so prevalent in toddlers and young children who would eat the paint chips or suck on toys coated in lead paint dust. 

Even if you’re not eating any paint chips, inhaling the dust and vapors from lead-based paint can be extremely harmful. Thankfully, lawmakers in the west were slowly catching on to the hazards of this long-outdated substance.

Bans Begin

It is honestly quite shocking how long it took for the dangers of lead paint to be brought to the forefront of public health in developed nations. Still, though, there were a few warnings that were ahead of their time.

Perhaps one of the most interesting anecdotes comes from Ben Franklin. Reportedly, he wrote to a friend in as early as 1786 to warn about the dangers of lead and specifically lead paint. However, it would be almost exactly 100 years later that the first legal actions were taken to reduce lead exposure.

Germany

Beginning in 1886, Germany began to take precautions to protect its citizens from the harms of lead poisoning. Women and children were barred from working in factories that manufactured lead-based paints and sugars. This sparked a swift change in legislation throughout other developed European countries.

France

France was also at the forefront of the movement against the use of lead paints. In 1904, a French expert was quoted in Sherwin-Williams’s monthly publication as finding the paint to be “poisonous to a large degree, both for the workmen and for the inhabitants of a house painted with lead colors.”

This was enough to spark swift change in French legislation. By 1909, France had passed a law completely banning the use of the substance in both interior and exterior locations of any type of building – commercial or residential.

Canada

Our neighbors to the north in Canada were the next country to impose any type of legislation on the use of lead paints. Under the Hazardous Products Act in 1976, the lead content of paint and coatings for furniture, toys, household items, and interior and exterior surfaces of buildings frequented by children was limited to 0.5% by weight.

It wasn’t until 2005 that Canada further limited the lead content of paints. While a majority of Canadian paint manufacturers have adhered to these standards, some have drawn criticism for exporting paints with dangerous lead levels to countries with more lax lead laws. 

America Follows Suit

Surprisingly, for such an industrialized and developed country, the United States did not conform to lead-based paint standards like other countries until the late 20th century.

In 1971, the U.S. Congress banned the use of lead-based paints in any newly built residential or commercial buildings, but only if they were constructed using federal funding or assistance.

It wasn’t until seven years later, in 1977, that the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission finally banned the use of lead-based paint completely in residential and public properties. This is also when the use of lead paint in toys and furniture was banned in the United States.

Another new piece of legislation pertaining to lead paint exposure came in 1996. The Lead-Based Paint Disclosure Regulation, put in place by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Department of Housing and Urban Development, requires owners of homes built in 1978 or earlier to disclose the presence of lead paint to potential buyers or renters. 

In 2010, the EPA created standards for construction on buildings with lead paint built before 1978 with lead paint under the Renovation, Repair, and Painting (RRP) regulation. Contractors disturbing more than a 6 square foot space where lead paint is present must have proper certification. This EPA certification ensures that proper construction techniques are used to minimize lead exposure or contamination.

Certifications

Standards put in place by the EPA require extensive certifications and repeated recertification over time. Failure to adhere to these regulations can result in some hefty fines. There are multiple lead certifications that people in various trades can obtain.

Available Lead Certifications

Obtaining these certifications is required before any type of construction can begin on a building built before 1978 or with traces of lead paint remaining.

According to the EPA, an estimated 37 million homes built before 1980 contain traces of lead paint on either the interior, exterior, or both in the United States today. 

Conclusion

Though lead paint did have its purposes in the past, in modern times we know the immense dangers of the substance. Rigorous professional training and certifications must be completed before working in older homes in the United States. Laws, regulations, and bans are constantly being altered or enacted, so remaining up to date on certifications is pivotal in healthy and safe construction.

It isn’t the 4th century anymore and there are plenty of paint alternatives on the market that will not harm your brain and body. Given the potentially fatal repercussions of lead exposure, always maintain a heightened sense of vigilance as either a property owner or construction tradesman.