How and Why to Test Your Home for Lead Paint

Lead paint

Lead paint is still a risk in America

Lead was used as a pigment and an additive in paint for thousands of years. It sped up drying and increased durability, but it also highly toxic. Lead paint was banned for use in residential paints in the US in 1978. Despite this, it is still a danger to American households. While it was banned in new applications, there are houses across the country built prior to 1978 which still have lead paint on their walls. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates more than 87% of houses built before 1940 have lead paint, an estimated 69% of builds from 1940-1959, and 24% of builds from 1960-1977. There are still millions of homes that likely have lead paint, perhaps under layers of newer paint. It is important to educate yourself about the risks and tests to determine the safety of your property.


How to tell if your home has lead paint

Lead paint

Lead paint is an immediate issue if your paint is peeling, cracking, flaking or deteriorating

If your house was built before 1978, you may have lead paint. The mere presence of lead paint is not always a problem. If your paint is in good condition it is usually not harmful, but deteriorating lead-based paint is hazardous; if your paint begins peeling, chipping, cracking, or chalking, it needs immediate attention. Lead is a risk where paint becomes dust, which can be from deterioration but also from areas where there is a lot of wear and tear. Areas such a doors and door frames, windows and window sills, stairs, railings and other high traffic zones need special attention. You cannot tell from color either; lead paint did not come in one single color, though the most common pigments that contained lead were yellow, red, and white.

Lead causes physical and neurological problems

If lead is ingested it can affect almost every organ in your body. It increases blood pressure, decreases kidney function, and causes reproductive problems, as well as affecting the central nervous system. In pregnant women it can lead to premature birth and have serious effects for the foetus. Those at highest risk from lead are children six years old and under who might experience slowed growth, anemia, lower IQ and hyperactivity, and learning problems. In rare cases lead ingestion can cause seizures, coma, and even death. Needless to say, you do not want a poisonous substance such as lead lining the walls of your home.


How to test for lead paint

If you suspect you are at risk and want to know for certain, there are several tests available for lead paint. Professional inspections can cost hundreds of dollars, but a simple DIY test kit is relatively inexpensive, ranging from $10-$50. There are only two EPA-approved kits: 3M LeadCheck swabs and Klean-Strip D-Lead paint testing kit. In Massachusetts, the EPA has approved the Commonwealth of Massachusetts lead test kit.

Though the specifics may be different, the basic procedure for testing paint is the same across kits:

  1. Using a utility knife, expose the layers of paint down to the wood.
  2. Remove the test from its packaging and follow the test-specific instructions.
  3. Rub the swab across the exposed layer of paint, making sure the chemicals are in contact with the paint.
  4. If the test/chemicals change color, you have lead.

Which test is right for your substrate?

The chemicals used to detect lead are rhodizonate- or sulfide-based, and you need to choose which test you use carefully. Rhodizonate-based kits turn pink in the presence of lead, so avoid using them on red or pink paint, while the sulfide-based kits are better used on lighter paint colors. According to the EPA:

  • 3M LeadCheck can reliably determine that lead-based paint is not present on wood, ferrous metal (alloys that contain iron), or drywall and plaster surfaces.
  • D-Lead can reliably determine that lead-based paint is not present on wood, ferrous metal, drywall and plaster.
  • Commonwealth of Massachusetts lead test kit is approved for drywall and plaster, not wood and ferrous material.


What you need to know if you test positive for lead paint

Lead painted surfaces in the home are not harmful as long as you keep them in a good condition. There is no need to panic, but be aware of the risks, and check your home for deteriorating paint, addressing issues without excessive sanding. If you have children, have them tested for lead exposure; it is a simple blood test which can be administered by your paediatrician. Make sure high wear areas such as stairs and doorways are not rubbing together. Wipe down flat surfaces once a week with a damp cloth to collect any dust, then throw the cloth away.

If you are testing your home in order to get the green light for remodeling or renovation and you find you have lead, you need to make sure that your contractors are trained to deal with buildings where lead may be present. The EPA has a lead renovation, repair and painting certified firm locator tool on their website. The tool allows you to find trained firms within your area.

If you find lead, this is the next step

Have a professional test your home. Unlike the DIY kits, a professional testing service can measure the levels of lead and tell you which areas are of particular concern. Calling in the professionals is also the best way to ensure you are not exposing yourself and your family to health hazards.

If it is not in your budget to have a professional handle the problem, there are several steps you can take yourself. Do not work on lead paint if you are pregnant or when your children are in the house.

  1. Leave it be: If the surface is in good condition, it will likely no be a problem. If you ever sell the building however, you will need to inform potential buyers about the presence of lead paint.
  2. Enclose the problem: Cover up any surface which tested positive for lead paint with new dry wall for the walls or aluminum or vinyl for trim or siding.
  3. Encapsulation: This is the easiest solution. An encapsulant is a liquid coating that provides a barrier over the lead paint. Essentially it works like a primer, but it also creates a watertight bond, sealing in the lead paint. It can only be used on surfaces that are in good condition
  4. Removal: This is exactly what it sounds, stripping the surface down and removing the offending paintwork. Because sanding atomizes the lead and produces dust, you will need to use wet sanding to keep it tamped down. The clean will need to be comprehensive to remove all the hazardous paint, the dust will need to be wetted to prevent it becoming airborne.
  5. Replacement: Take everything out which is painted with lead and replace it with new materials. The most expensive option, and not really a do it yourself.

Lead paint is a problem, but there are solutions

Lead paint is a serious problem, and the dangers it poses for you and your family are worth concern. However, if managed properly, lead paint need not be harmful. Arm yourself with knowledge before you approach the issue, make sure you test your home properly and if you find lead, follow the guidelines laid out by the EPA. Having a trained team of professionals deal with your lead paint is by far the safest method of dealing with it, though options such as encapsulation can be carried out by homeowners themselves. If you do tackle the issue yourself, it is of utmost importance that you take every possible precaution.

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