How to Safely Work with Lead-Based Paint

Scraping Lead-Based Paint
Scraping Lead-Based Paint. Getty / Harri Tahvanainen

Next to asbestos, the idea of lead-based paint puts a chill in the heart of potential homebuyers, current home dwellers, and most particularly home remodelers.​

Awareness began in the 1970s, after the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) announcement that ingestion of lead-based paint may cause severe learning disabilities, behavioral problems, seizures, and even death. These warnings are best heeded by anyone with an old home pre-dating 1978, when lead-based paint was banned from being sold in the U.S.

Lead's Legacy of Poisoning

Until that time, lead had been used primarily as a pigment in paint, and as one of the chief components of (lead) pipes, as far back as the Roman Empire. Among its many uses, lead was also used as an additive to wine, because of its slightly sweet taste, as well as an element contained in many cooking utensils and vessels.

Knowing what we know now about the poisonous capability of lead, it should come as no surprise that the effects of lead poisoning have been far-reaching, and some even suggest that the fall of the Roman Empire can be partially attributed to the presence of lead poisoning in so many of its leaders and citizens.

Taking Lead-Based Paint Within Context

However distressing it may be to discover the presence of lead-based paint, there are ways to live and work with it. The most important thing to remember is that as long as the paint remains solid, it will not harm you. Merely touching a painted surface or being in the immediate area of lead-based paint will not cause adverse effects.

The true challenge to health and safety is presented when one needs to work on and remediate lead-paint-covered surfaces. This work creates more of an opportunity for hazard, as the paint is removed and enters the air as particles and dust.

Below, we outline and explain some of the recommended safety steps you can adopt to mitigate the potential for harm.

Who Is Affected by Lead-Based Paint?

Everyone, but mostly children. Lead-based paint appears to mainly affect children age six and under, although adults may experience problems with pregnancy as well as neurological conditions, which range from the cumulative and chronic effects of exposure to lead, to acute conditions such as renal failure and encephalopathy.

Thankfully, elevated blood-lead levels have dropped dramatically since 1978, which is due mainly to aggressive education efforts from the EPA, state, and local agencies The number of children with elevated levels are now 310,000--down from 3 to 4 million.

Are All Houses Affected?

No. Houses built prior to 1978, when lead-based paint was outlawed, are at greater risk. Keep in mind that 1978 is an arbitrary date. Even though lead-based paint was outlawed at that time, supplies may have lingered and been applied after that time. Conversely, not all pre-1978 homes' paint will contain lead.

How Do You Get Lead Poisoning?

Poisoning results from lead-based paint that no longer adheres to the surface on which it was originally painted. This means chips, dust, flakes, and peels. If you scrape, torch, or sand lead-based paint, you run the risk of poisoning.

How Can You Find Out If You Have Lead-Based Paint?

One option is to utilize a home kit such as the D-Lead Paint Test Kit, which is widely available and cheap. However, the EPA indicates that these kits are often inaccurate, and recommend looking for Lead Abatement companies to run the tests for you.

How Do I Work Safely With It?

  • If you can avoid the area in the first place, that is the safest avenue. Encapsulation is one way to keep the paint in place and stabilized. The most popular form of encapsulation is painting over the lead-based paint.
  • Wear a respirator (not a paper mask) whenever abrading lead-based paint.
  • Liberally spray water on the surface to hold down dust.
  • Use a HEPA vacuum to clean up.
  • Wear gloves, goggles, washable hats, paper coveralls. Discard all of the disposable items at the end of each day, rather than reusing. Wash the gloves and goggles.
  • Take surfaces containing lead-based paint outside. If this is not possible, seal off non-work areas inside with plastic sheeting.

For detailed information, see EPA's free pamphlet, Reducing Lead Hazards When Remodeling Your Home.