Did you know that reportedly 400,000 people in the United States die every year due to lead poisoning?
Alarming, isn’t it?
What makes it even worse is that lead exposure can affect people of all ages, and children are the most vulnerable to it. Their still developing bodies make it easy for lead to cause health problems, and at the same time making it hard for them to fight these illnesses on their own. That is why childhood lead poisoning is prevalent.
Lead is present in so many places, but the biggest known culprit of exposure to it is lead-based paint.
In the past, high levels of lead were mixed in with paint because of its benefits. But when people started getting sick and even died because of the lead used in paint, they pushed to eliminate its use.
Unfortunately, many old homes in the US are likely to have paint that contains lead. As a result, anyone that lives in such a home is in danger of experiencing the many hazards associated with it.
The presence of lead in paint should always be taken seriously. If you are not aware of the lead-related health risks, keep reading because you will understand why lead exposure is so dangerous that it resulted in a ban.
You will also learn how to check for lead in the paint used in an old home, as well as what you need to do if it is present.
Dangers of Lead Paint
Touching a lead-based paint that is in good condition and with no signs of damage or deterioration will hardly pose any health hazard. It is only the damaged or chipping lead paint that you should worry about. This creates lead dust that will put anyone at risk of experiencing its dangers.
It is not the paint itself that we need to worry about. Rather, the dust generated by a lead-based paint is what we should be wary of. Since the dust is invisible, we will never know when we start getting exposed to it.
According to the US Department of Health and Human Services, exposure to it can happen in three ways:
- Inhalation – hard to determine because lead does not have a scent
- Ingestion – lead dust can settle on your food and drinks, or you may transfer it to your mouth through unwashed hands. It may sometimes have a metallic taste, which can serve as an indicator.
- Skin Contact – lead dust can also be absorbed through the skin and enter the bloodstream.
Unfortunately, there are no early signs or symptoms that will indicate once someone has been exposed to lead in small doses. We will only know if we have fallen victim to it once the amount of lead present in our bodies is high enough to cause various health issues.
Children are at greater risk of experiencing health complications due to lead because their absorption of this metal is reportedly 4 to 5 times that of adults. This is due to their natural curiosity to touch stuff and immediately put anything they can get their hands on into their mouth, including objects that have lead.
These signs and symptoms can be age-specific and may also be signs of other possible illnesses, that is why it is challenging to attribute them to lead poisoning alone:
For Newborns Who Got Exposed to Lead Before Birth
- Birth weight is lower
- Born prematurely
- Slow growth
- Mental retardation and developmental delays
- Reduced IQ
- Behavioral issues, such as antisocial behavior, pica or the eating disorder where non-food items are eaten, and low attention span
- Loss of appetite
- Weight loss
- Hearing issues
- Abdominal pain
- Impaired functions of the neurological and nervous systems
- Kidney issues
- Stunted growth
- Gums having a blue tinge
- Muscle and joint pain or weakness
- Elevated blood pressure
- Mood disorders
- Difficulty concentrating or memory loss
- Abnormal sperm or poor sperm quality
- Reduced sperm count
- Cramps and abdominal pain
- Motor issues
- Lack of appetite
- Numbness or tingling sensation in the extremities
- Constipation and black diarrhea
- Sleeping issues
- Miscarriage or premature birth for pregnant women
- Low fertility
- Carpal tunnel syndrome
- Ankle or foot drop
- Going into a comatose state
- Damage to the brain (reduced brain volume)
- Digestion issues
- Loss of libido
- Metallic taste in mouth
Treatment is still possible but leaving it too late can cause irreversible damage. Too much exposure to lead will cause lead poisoning that can lead to death if left untreated.
Why Was Lead Added to Paint?
Given all the health hazards, you might wonder why was lead added to paint in the first place. All the risks aside, lead is an extremely helpful substance when used in paint. This is also the reason why it is still present in some paints despite bans present all over the world.
In the past, lead was added primarily to give it their desired color; different pigments were added to paint to produce different colors and give it a brighter and fresher look. These pigments also have greater opacity, allowing the paints they were mixed in to have a bigger coverage than other paints.
Paint takes time to dry and adding lead will speed up this part, that is why painters use it as an additive. Its flexibility also allows it to be crack-resistant even in harsh conditions, which cannot be said for non-lead-based paint in the past. Also, it provides moisture resistance that prevents corrosion on the surfaces where the lead paint is applied on.
It is also known to be durable, holding up to wear and tear well, and is also capable of preventing the growth of mold and mildew. These features are ideal for home use, that is why it became a household favorite for so long.
However, this does not mean people chose to ignore the harmful effects of lead. Rather, they were still unaware of the hazards back then and were more focused on the benefits that it provided.
When Did They Stop Using Lead in Paint?
Tracing back its history, we can see that this element was widely used for centuries. In fact, ancient Egyptians were discovered to have used a lot of lead, from their signature eye makeup to paints. The US is no exception, owing to the fact that a large percentage of homes for decades made use of lead-based paint.
So, when did they stop using lead in paint?
In the US, it was only in 1978 when lead-based paint was completely banned for residential use, despite knowing about the possible health risks long before then. Sadly, health advocates and legislators had to fight the industry bigwigs for decades until a complete ban could be put in place.
But when it comes to industrial use, lead-based paint is still pretty much in use. Its anti-corrosive property is a much-needed aspect in painting bridges and other steel structures where durability is vital. Current legislations in the US only allow the use of paint with lead on such structures, as well as for shipbuilding and its repair, farming equipment, and for signs on the road itself.
The worldwide use of lead-based paint is a different story. Many developing countries still sell it because it ends up cheaper than non-lead-based paint, as a gallon of it has more coverage than a paint without lead. Most of these countries are also unaware yet of the health hazards associated with lead.
Only a few countries worldwide have completely regulated the use of paint containing lead for both residential and industrial purposes. That is why many homes built after 1978, even in the US, may have lead-based paint present, though the number of such homes are steadily declining.
Do All Homes Built Before 1978 Have Lead Paint?
Since the US ban on lead-based paint was only imposed a few decades ago, you may be wondering if all homes that were built before 1978 made use of it.
The good news is, not all of those homes built before that year made use of it But the bad news is, a vast majority of them did. The US Environmental Protection Agency, or EPA, published a report that stated:
- 87% of homes built before 1940 is likely to have lead-based paint
- 69% of homes built between 1940 to 1959 is likely to have lead-based paint
- 24% of homes built between 1960 to 1977 is likely to have lead-based paint
Despite the ban in place since 1978, more than a million homes in the US are suspected to have used lead-based paint.
How Do You Know If There Is Lead Paint in Your House – How to Test for Lead in Paint
It is a given that old homes are more likely to have used lead-based paint. If your home was constructed on or before 1978, chances are your home fits that bill. Still, there is a slim chance that you are one of the few fortunate homeowners who have a lead-free home.
If you are planning on doing home renovation soon, you need to know for sure if you are at risk for lead-related health issues. This begs the question: how do you know if there is lead paint in your house?
Unfortunately, you cannot detect or check for lead present in your home by simply looking at it. However, you may suspect its presence if you see paint that has chipped or cracked in a geometric pattern reminiscent of scales, or the residue present on the damaged paint appears chalky.
Confirming if lead is present in your home is done by a professional inspection and thorough testing.
Fortunately, you do not have to immediately get your home inspected or tested if it was built earlier than 1978 if your home is still in pristine condition. Like we mentioned, lead-based paint is not dangerous if it is in perfect condition and shows zero signs of damage.
But if you meet the following conditions, it is a good idea to check if lead-based paint is present in your home, even if you have no plans of getting it renovated anytime soon:
- You live with children in an old home constructed on or before 1978, as they are most susceptible to exposure, and they play in the surrounding soil
- Your home has never been renovated
- Your home is in poor condition and has affected the paint (peeling, cracks, flaking off, etc.)
If you want to know how to test for lead in paint, there are three ways of doing so:
- Hazard screen – best for homes with a minimal risk for lead. Testing is done by first checking which parts of your home have signs of damage or deterioration. Dust from the floors and windows of those areas is then collected for testing. These two sets of dust are then tested for the presence of lead.
This test will only determine if your home is at risk for the possibility of lead-based paint being present, but will not serve as a confirmation for its presence.
- Risk assessment – any damaged paint in your home is checked and the cause of paint deterioration is identified. The damaged paint, as well as any painted surface that may have been touched, bitten on, or licked by children, is tested for the presence of lead. Testing is also done on the soil near the foundation of your home and on play spaces, as lead dust may be present on those locations.
Only the paint that looks untouched is not checked for lead.
- Lead-based paint inspection – all surfaces of your home that have been painted, outside and inside and even behind wallpaper, will be checked for lead. This can be done while onsite or by collecting samples that will be sent to an EPA-accredited laboratory.
This type of inspection will confirm the presence of lead in the paint, but not the amount of lead present nor any potential health hazards.
Contrary to what most people think, lead-based paint is not only used in the walls of a home. Other likely spots where the paint is used, or where lead dust can settle in your home include:
- Doors and doorframes
- Windows and windowsills
- Floors below windows
- Artificial turf
So if the walls seem to have no lead present but other parts or sections of your home have paint that is as old as your home or buried underneath newer layers of non-lead-based paint, you should still get those structures checked too.
Can I Test for Lead Paint Myself?
With all the hazards associated with lead paint and how costly it is to get an old house professionally tested for its presence, a common question that homeowners ask themselves is, “can I test for lead paint myself?”
While most would advocate for getting it done professionally, you can still do the testing yourself through lead paint test kits that are widely available on the market. These kits consist of chemicals or swabs that change color when they come into contact with lead. While it can be done by anyone who can follow instructions, those who are color blind may have difficulty interpreting the results.
These DIY kits cost a fraction of the price of a professional testing, making them a practical option for homeowners who need immediate results and are on a tight budget. Certain kits can also indicate the amount or level of lead present in the tested area.
There are two common kinds of DIY lead paint test kits available: sulfide-based kits that are best for light paint colors only and rhodizonate-based kits for all paint colors, save for pink and red because these colors can give false positives. Also, only a few kits are EPA-certified, so make sure to get such kits for accurate results.
It is also vital that you check their expiration dates before testing, and strictly follow the instructions given. Using expired testing kits or skipping important steps when testing will compromise the results.
But before you start testing for lead, make sure to keep you and your household safe by:
- Keeping everyone, especially children and pregnant women, away from your home, if you suspect that lead dust is present
- Making sure you are well covered up by wearing rubber gloves, face mask with a HEPA filter, lab goggles, and other protective gear
- Testing in an inconspicuous area, such as inside a closet or cabinet, corners, or any location that is left undisturbed
Testing often involves scraping off about a quarter inch of the paint, especially if there are multiple layers of paint present, if there are no signs of flaking that can be used for the test. Make sure to sanitize the area first before doing the actual testing.
Consider buying lead paint test kits in bulk if you plan to check multiple sections of your home, or even your furniture and children’s toys that are also known to possibly use lead paint, as each kit normally contains enough materials for a maximum of six tests. One kit may not be enough to cover all the structures or objects you want to test. Make sure that the kit you buy in fact is meant for the surface you’re testing, as some products will only cover certain types of material.
If lead is detected, you need to follow the following steps outlined by the EPA:
- Get your home checked by an assessor who is certified by the agency
- Check the report created based on the professional assessment
- Determine if you can retain the paint or abatement is needed, based on the report
It is possible to retain the paint with lead in your home, but the downside to this is that regular inspection and maintenance is a must, and that any home renovation you plan to undertake must only be done by contractors who are lead-safe certified.
But if abatement, whether through complete removal or by getting the lead-based paint sealed or enclosed, is recommended by the assessor, it must only be done by certified abatement contractors.
You and your household should also undergo a blood test to detect if you have already been exposed to lead and the level of lead present in the bloodstream, and if any medical intervention is needed if lead is detected.
Can You Just Paint Over Lead-Based Paint?
With all the necessary measures needed when dealing with this issue, it is common for homeowners to find shortcuts or inexpensive means to solve the problem. For many, they think of just covering it up with a new layer of non-lead-based paint, believing that this new layer will keep the lead present in place. Not only is this easy but it is also cheaper than hiring pros to do the needed fixes.
While this method is doable, and even recommended in some cases, you also need to remember that this is a temporary solution and will depend on how long the upper coat of paint will hold up over time.
Take note of the following if you are planning to cover up the lead-based paint with new paint:
- The paint with lead and the surface that will be painted on is still in good condition and has no signs of damage that can produce lead dust
- It is done only in locations where the painted surface will be left undisturbed or exposed to minimal traffic that will not subject it to wear and tear
- A special sealing paint known as an encapsulant must be used to prevent the lead paint from chipping or creating dust. Note that encapsulants are different from non-lead-based paint and come in three types: polyurethane polymers or epoxy, polymers, and cement-like encapsulants.
- Aside from encapsulation, you can also use an enclosure, such as a drywall or cladding, to cover up surfaces that have lead paint. But if you remove those enclosures, you will again expose the problem area.
Note that any surface with lead paint that frequently gets touched or walked on should never just be painted over. Friction can cause the new paint and encapsulant to wear off over time, exposing the lead-based paint. And you will have to paint over it once more.
This cycle will just repeat if you paint over a lead paint-covered surface that can easily succumb to wear and tear. That is why for such surfaces, safe removal methods done by pros should be done.
How to Remove Lead Paint
First of all – we strongly discourage any homeowner from attempting to do this themselves!
With all the health hazards involved, you may want to think of going for a more permanent solution when it comes to dealing with this issue in your home, especially if you have very curious children who love to run around and taste whatever they can get their hands on.
If you want to get rid of these health risks for good, the best way to do it is to remove all the existing paint in your home and use non-lead-based paint instead.
Unfortunately, this is easier said than done. Removing it is not as easy as removing ordinary paint, as the dust generated from stripping the paint is the most dangerous. That is why the removal should be as less invasive as possible to avoid creating such dust, and that safety precautions are always in place.
Some safety measures needed before, during, and after starting this task include:
- Completely sealing off all openings and use polyethylene sheeting on doorways to minimize the spread of lead dust
- Shutting down the HVAC system to prevent any dust from getting to other parts of your home
- Covering up the flooring with plastic
- Transferring all your belongings elsewhere or covering them up with sheets of plastic to avoid being contaminated by the dust
- Preventing everyone except contractors from entering the house while work is ongoing
- Making sure that anyone working on paint removal is completely covered up by wearing long sleeved shirts, long pants, goggles, gloves, and a half-face respirator mask with HEPA filter
- Washing or disposing clothes that were used in lead paint removal separately
Safely removing this paint is done by pros using any of these methods:
- Wet scraping – water is sprayed over the lead-based paint every now and then to prevent dust from forming while it is being scraped off by hand.
- Wet hand sanding – similar to paint removal by wet scraping but instead of a hand scraper, sandpaper or a vacuum that has a HEPA filter is used
- Dry power sanding – a sander with a dust shroud is attached to a HEPA vacuum and is used on the painted surface. However, there no need to spray water over the paint while it is being removed because the dust shroud will immediately collect all the dust produced when sanding
- Low temperature or steam heat – heat coming from a steam gun or infrared paint strippers is used to soften the paint for easy removal. While this method does not create dust, it does produce harmful fumes
- Chemical strippers – only the paint itself is affected by the chemical, which makes it a less invasive method. This is best suited for removing paint on surfaces of historical or heritage structures, as well as boats and ships
After getting the lead-based paint removed, its disposal is not as simple as sweeping the debris up with a broom and dustpan, then throwing it to the nearest garbage can. Collecting the debris is done using a HEPA filter vacuum and using damp sponges and mops to wipe up all the floors, ceilings, and walls to make sure all the lead dust generated is removed. The debris must also be discarded properly and to the proper facilities.
Another method is to completely replace all parts of your home that has lead paint. This may be ideal if it is only used on limited surfaces, such as doors, but you may as well get your entire home demolished if such paint is found all over your home.
When it comes to dealing with the possibility of lead-based paint, we should always err on the side of caution. Always prioritize safety over saving a few dollars by not confirming the presence of lead in your home.