Next to asbestos, the idea of lead-based paint puts a chill in the heart of potential homebuyers, current home dwellers, and particularly do-it-yourselfers remodeling their own homes. Awareness of the dangers of lead-based paint began in the 1970s, after the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announcement that ingestion of lead-based paint may cause severe learning disabilities, behavioral problems, seizures, and even death. These warnings are red flags for anyone owning an old home pre-dating 1978, when lead-based paint was banned from being sold in the United States.
But lead-based paint on a home does not mean that the lead-based paint cannot be encapsulated with new paint or that it cannot be scraped, sanded, and then painted. It simply means that a different set of precautions must be heeded when taking on this project in order to do it safely for both the worker and for the home's occupants.
Lead-Based Paint: Legacy of Protection and Poisoning
Lead has long been used as a component in paint, and as one of the chief components of water 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. Some historians 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.
However distressing it may be to discover the presence of lead-based paint in a home, there are ways to live and work with it. The most important thing to remember is that as long as the paint remains solid — as opposed to deteriorating paint that is chipped, peeling, etc. — 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, scrape, sand, and otherwise remediate lead paint-covered surfaces. This work creates more of an opportunity for hazard, as the paint is removed and enters the air in the form of particles and dust.
People and Houses That Are Most Affected by Lead-Based Paint
Everyone, but mostly children, can be harmed by lead-based paint. Lead-based paint appears to mainly affect young children, although adults may experience problems with pregnancy as well as neurological conditions, which range from the cumulative and chronic effects of exposure to lead, including acute conditions such as renal failure and encephalopathy. Thankfully, elevated blood-lead levels have dropped dramatically since 1978, due mainly to aggressive education efforts from the EPA, state, and local agencies.
Houses built prior to 1978, when lead-based paint was outlawed, are at greater risk. It is important to note that 1978 is an arbitrary date. Even though lead-based paint was outlawed at that time, supplies may have lingered and been applied long after that time. Conversely, not all pre-1978 homes' paint will contain lead.
How to Work Safely With Lead-Based Paint
Poisoning results from lead-based paint that no longer adheres to the surface on which it was originally painted. If you scrape, torch, or sand lead-based paint in an unsafe manner, you run the risk of poisoning. Visit the EPA to review their lead paint safety brochure for instructions for safely working with lead-based paint.
What Are Some of the Health Effects of Lead? United States Environmental Protection Agency.
Lead in Paint. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Lead: Versatile Metal, Long Legacy. Dartmouth Toxic Metals Superfund Research Program.
Protect Your Family From Sources of Lead. United States Environmental Protection Agency.
Rao, J., et al. Lead encephalopathy in adults. Journal of Neurosciences in Rural Practice. 2014;5(2):161–63. doi:10.4103/0976-3147.131665
Prevent Children's Exposure to Lead. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 2021.
Dignam, T., et al. Control of lead sources in the United States, 1970-2017: Public health progress and current challenges to eliminating lead exposure. Journal of Public Health Management and Practice. 2019;25(1):S13–22. doi:10.1097/PHH.0000000000000889