Managing Lead Paint Hazards

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Managing Lead Paint Hazards

If you disturb old paint, children can be poisoned — so think twice before you plug in your belt sander

Posted on Apr 8 2016 by Martin Holladay

About 37 million American homes and apartments have some interior lead paint on walls and woodwork. Any house built before 1978 — the year when most types of lead paint were withdrawn from the market in the U.S. — may contain lead paint. If lead paint is present on friction surfaces (for example, window sash), or if any lead paint is flaking or deteriorated, any children under the age of 6 or pregnant women who live in the house are at risk.

Anyone engaged in remodeling activities has an obligation to learn the basic facts about lead paint, for two reasons: if you are remodeling an occupied house, your activities may be endangering the health of the occupants. And if you are a professional remodeler working in other people’s homes, ignoring lead paint dangers is illegal.

Too many poisoned children

The dangers of lead paint are real. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that more than 250,000 American children have elevated blood lead levels.

Residents of cities with a high proportion of older homes are particularly at risk; according to the New York Times, 14.2% of all children living in Cleveland and 23.1% of all children living in Allentown, Pennsylvania, have elevated levels of lead in their blood (more than 5 micrograms per deciliter).

What homeowners need to know

If your house was built before 1978, you should assume that the paint in your house (both exterior and interior) contains lead, unless the paint has been tested and found to be lead-free. Almost all homes built before 1950 have some lead-based paint.

Although it’s possible for adults or children above the age of 6 to be poisoned by lead, young children and pregnant women are the most vulnerable.

If you live in an older home and you have young kids, what to you need to worry about?

  • Assume that the soil at the base of your exterior walls has been contaminated by years of uncollected paint chips. Don’t let your kids play in this soil.
  • Any flaking interior paint is worrisome. Particularly worrisome is paint on friction surfaces, including the paint on window sash. Even if this paint isn’t flaking, it can be ground into dust when the window sash are opened or closed. Dust in window wells is particularly suspect.

If you are moving into an older house, you should do an initial clean-up using wet cleaning techniques (using damp sponges, damp rags, or a mop). Wet cleaning practices are safer than sweeping or ordinary vacuuming.

Children or adults can ingest lead-containing dust through the lungs (by breathing dusty air) or the stomach (by hand-to-mouth contact). Lead-containing dust is often spread by scraping, sanding, or demolition activities, so think twice before you begin a remodeling project. Intact and undisturbed painted surfaces are usually not a health hazard.

If anything about your house makes you nervous, you should consult a certified lead specialist about possible hazards.

What remodelers need to know

If you perform remodeling work in buildings that were built before 1978, you need to be thoroughly familiar with the requirements of the EPA’s Renovation, Repair, and Painting (RRP) rule. These regulations took effect on April 22, 2010.

Any remodeling work that disturbs painted surfaces in a pre-1978 building must comply with the lead-safety regulations set out in the RRP. According to the EPA, “Renovation is broadly defined as any activity that disturbs painted surfaces and includes most repair, remodeling, and maintenance activities, including window replacement.”

The RRP rule applies to:

  • Work performed by remodelers, painters, electricians, plumbers, HVAC(Heating, ventilation, and air conditioning). Collectively, the mechanical systems that heat, ventilate, and cool a building. contractors, and other trade contractors.
  • Work in homes, schools, and day-care centers built before January 1, 1978 — but not to work in newer buildings.
  • Work (including painting, window replacement, or any type of demolition) that disturbs 6 square feet or more of lead-based paint indoors, or 20 square feet or more of lead-based paint outdoors.

The RRP rule doesn’t apply to:

  • Work performed by homeowners or occupants in their own home or apartment.
  • Work performed in studio apartments (otherwise known as “zero-bedroom” apartments).
  • Work that disturbs painted surfaces that test negative for the presence of lead.
  • Painting performed without disturbing existing painted surfaces — that is, without any sanding, scraping, or other activities that generate chips or dust.

To to comply with the RRP rule, a remodeler must:

  • Get trained.
  • Work for a remodeling company certified by the EPA (unless you are the sole employee of the remodeling company).
  • Communicate with the building’s occupants before beginning work.
  • Post warning signs at the job site.
  • Provide on-the-job training to uncertified workers.
  • Erect plastic barriers to contain the work area.
  • Use tools that minimize dust creation.
  • Clean up carefully.
  • Verify that cleanup practices were adequate.
  • Document compliance with the requirements of the rule and save records for at least three years.

Note that remodelers aren't required to test painted surfaces in the work area for the presence of lead. However, if a remodeler chooses not to test these surfaces, all painted surfaces must be assumed to contain lead.

Getting trained

If you’re a remodeler who wants to work in older buildings, you must take a one-day (8-hour) course called “Lead Safety for Renovation, Repair, and Painting.” The cost of the course varies, but usually ranges from $200 to $300.

For information on locating a training provider, visit the EPA’s Renovation, Repair and Painting Program web site.

Lead test kits

Testing painted surfaces for the presence of lead paint is recommended but optional. If you don't test, you'll have to assume that the paint contains lead.

According to the EPA, simple spot-testing kits are accurate enough for most renovation work, but only test kits acceptable to the EPA can be used. The EPA has approved three lead-test kits: the 3M LeadCheck kit, the D-Lead kit, and the state of Massachusetts kit.

Communication is essential

Before beginning renovation work, renovation contractors are required to have a conversation (or conversations) with the building’s occupants. The contractor must:

  • Ask occupants to share the results of any previously conducted lead tests.
  • Give occupants a copy of the EPA pamphlet “Renovate Right.”
  • Get them to sign a form acknowledging receipt of the pamphlet.
  • Give them a copy of your EPA or state lead-training certificate.
  • Explain the scope of the job, as well as the expected start and end dates for the work.
  • Explain what lead-safe methods you will use to complete the job.

Containment zones

Before any paint is disturbed, renovation contractors are required to isolate the work area from the rest of the house. This is done by installing barriers — typically constructed of 6-mil polyethylene with taped seams, although the thickness of the plastic is not specified in the RRP rule. A certified renovator must be on the site while the poly barriers are installed.

The purpose of the barriers is to ensure that no dust or debris leaves the work area. In other words, the polyethylene must be installed so that it is dust-tight. Blue painter’s tape works best for attaching plastic to existing finishes because it won’t pull old paint off the walls when it is removed.

All HVAC registers, diffusers, and grilles should be sealed with polyethylene and tape. If possible, all furniture and possessions should be removed from the work area before work begins. If furniture can’t be removed, it should be wrapped in plastic. Then the floor and any remaining furniture should be covered with plastic that is taped in place.

All doors and windows (except the door or window through which workers enter) must be closed and sealed with plastic.

Two layers of floor plastic are better than one. When it’s time to clean up, the top layer of floor plastic will be used to wrap up the dust and debris, leaving the bottom layer for protection during later stages of remodeling.

When leaving the work area, workers must take precautions to ensure that they (as well as any tools or items being carried) are free of dust or debris.

Ideally, a renovation contractor will organize work so that all demolition and scraping happens first, before any other work begins. Once the demolition and scraping work is complete, it’s important to clean up thoroughly before proceeding.

What about outdoor work?

Contractors who disturb exterior paint on an old building need to use the following work practices:

  • Close all doors within 20 feet of the work area, and seal these doors with plastic sheeting.
  • Cover the ground with plastic sheeting. In most cases, one side of the sheeting should be secured to the house. The plastic should extend at least 10 feet beyond the work area, or farther if necessary to catch falling chips and dust.
  • If other buildings are close to the work area, or if the weather is windy, other precautions (including vertical containment) may be necessary.

Tools must minimize dust creation

If you are disturbing lead-based paint, your tools and work practices must minimize dust or fume creation:

  • If you must scrape a painted surface, mist the area with water first so you are “working wet.”
  • Never use a heat gun unless temperatures are limited to a maximum of 1,100°F.
  • Never use a propane torch on a painted surface.
  • Never use a power sander or a power plane on a painted surface unless the tool is equipped with a High-Efficiency Particulate Air (HEPA) dust collection system. There is no prohibition against the use of a circular saw.
  • The use of chemical strippers (like Peel-Away) is permitted.

    To comply with OSHA requirements, workers need NIOSH-rated N100 respirators or HEPA respirators — not just common dust masks. (Disposable N100 respirators can be bought for as little as $8.)

    The use of disposable Tyvek suits is recommended. (These Tyvek suits are required by OSHA but not the EPA.)

    Clean up thoroughly

    During the renovation work, workers should wash their hands carefully before smoking or touching food. If workers aren’t using Tyvek suits, they should change out of their work clothes at the work site before returning home to their families. Work clothes should be laundered separately from other clothes.

    All debris must be picked up and bagged daily. Cleanup requires the use of a vacuum cleaner equipped with a HEPA filter. The end-of-the-job cleanup must be supervised or performed by a certified renovator:

    • Collect all paint chips and debris — this can be done by enclosing the debris in the top layer of plastic floor sheeting — and seal the waste in a heavy-duty bag. It’s best to mist the debris on the floor with water before gathering up the waste.
    • In most states, the debris and waste can be disposed of with regular trash, as long as the bags are carefully sealed. In a few states the debris may need to be handled as hazardous waste.
    • When bagged waste is transported, take care to ensure that no dust or debris is released.
    • Vacuum the walls and other surfaces in the room with a HEPA vac, and then wipe down the walls with a damp cloth or a damp mop.
    • Vacuum the floors with a HEPA vac and then mop the floors using a disposable damp mop, such as a Swiffer, or the two-bucket mopping system.
    • At the end of the cleanup, there should be no remaining debris or dust.
      • After the end-of-the-job cleanup is complete, the cleanup needs to be verified. Wipe the window stools, countertops, and uncarpeted floors in the work area with disposable wet wipes. Then compare each wipe to a “cleaning verification card.” If the color of the wipe is the same color or a lighter color than the color shown on the verification card, the surface passes the test.

        Any surface that fails the verification test must be recleaned and retested.

        So how much should I worry?

        When the topic of “toxic” building materials comes up, I like to point out that there are two categories to consider. First, there are “toxic” materials (in quotes) — a list that some natural builders refer to. (Popular items on this list include vinylCommon term for polyvinyl chloride (PVC). In chemistry, vinyl refers to a carbon-and-hydrogen group (H2C=CH–) that attaches to another functional group, such as chlorine (vinyl chloride) or acetate (vinyl acetate). products and foam insulation.) Then there are toxic materials (without quotes) — a list that includes asbestosMineral fiber once commonly used in many building materials, including insulation, fireproof siding, and resilient flooring. Inhalation of invisible asbestos fibers can lead to chest and abdominal cancers as well as scarring of the lungs. The use of asbestos in some products has been banned by the EPA and the U.S. Consumer Products Safety Commission; manufacturers also have adopted voluntary limitations on its use. When found in older buildings (most commonly in floor tiles, pipe and furnace insulation, or asbestos shingles), the product's friability is a major determinant in how it must be handled during renovations. More information:, radonColorless, odorless, short-lived radioactive gas that can seep into homes and result in lung cancer risk. Radon and its decay products emit cancer-causing alpha, beta, and gamma particles., and lead-based paint.

        There isn’t much evidence that you have to worry about “toxic” materials. But it’s really, really important that you pay attention to toxic materials. Unlike “toxic” materials, toxic materials can injure your family members’ health.

        A few common-sense guidelines for people who live in a home with lead-based paint:

        • Make sure that the paint is intact. If there are any signs that the paint is peeling or flaking, you need to take action — especially if you have children or family members who may be pregnant.
        • If your window wells are dusty, clean them regularly with a damp sponge. Rinse out the damp sponge carefully.
        • Cover the soil under your exterior siding with a layer of new mulch, and don’t let your children dig or play near your foundation.

        If you want to permanently remove lead-based paint from your home, you should contact a certified lead abatement contractor. Don’t try to do the work yourself.

        Martin Holladay’s previous blog: “Two Wingnuts Describe Their Backyard Tape Tests.”

        Click here to follow Martin Holladay on Twitter.

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    Apr 9, 2016 6:50 PM ET

    Not to argue against anything
    by Keith Gustafson

    Not to argue against anything Martin has posted, however with regard to how much to worry, see the attached graph.

    Were I living in a house built post 1950 something, I would not be up at night worrying about lead exposure.

    people my age or Martin's age routinely had lead levels as children that would be reportable [now] due to airborne TEL from car exhaust. Whether we were chewing on the window sills is not the point

    As a side note, being a car guy, I was amused[appalled] when my friends across the pond wailed, moaned and gnashed their teeth when they lost their beloved leaded gas in, get this year 2000. It had been over a decade since it was available in my state.

    leadfuel vs paint.jpg

    Apr 10, 2016 6:41 AM ET

    Response to Keith Gustafson
    by Martin Holladay

    While my article is about lead paint hazards, there have historically been two other main sources of lead that ends up poisoning children. In addition to lead paint, the lead in gasoline and the lead in drinking water have contributed to lead poisoning.

    While lead has been removed from gasoline in the U.S., decades of leaded gasoline use have left a toxic legacy in the soil. Homes near busy intersections often have high level of lead in the soil, and experts believe that the source of this lead is auto exhaust from the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s. Lead is persistent.

    The children of Flint, Michigan, are not the only children in the U.S. who have been poisoned by drinking water with a high lead level. Like Flint, many U.S. cities are still struggling with issues surrounding lead pipes and lead solder.

    In my article, I wrote, "Almost all homes built before 1950 have some lead-based paint." So if you have a house that was built before 1950, these issues matter.

    A second category of homes -- those built between 1950 and 1978 -- are less likely to have lead paint. That doesn't mean they don't, so caution is advisable.

    It's safe to assume that homes in the third category -- those built after 1978 -- are free of lead paint.

    The idea that children are poisoned when they "chew on windowsills" is a myth. The most common way that children ingest lead is by coming into contact with household dust. Lead dust can be inhaled or ingested when a small child puts a toy in her mouth.

    Apr 18, 2016 3:43 PM ET

    Link to a lead poisoning video
    by Martin Holladay

    This video features John Oliver: Lead.

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