Lead paint: If there’s a bogeyman lingering inside any home, especially older homes, it’s the fear that some part of your property is coated in this dangerous substance.
Lead can cause damage to the brain and other vital organs, as well as behavioral problems, learning disabilities, seizures, and even death; young children and pregnant women, in particular, are at risk, but people (and animals) of any age can experience lead-caused health problems.
Lead-based paint (also often called lead paint) contains large amounts of this toxic substance, and unfortunately, many homes have lead-based paint. (According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, lead from paint is one of the most common causes of lead poisoning.) The EPA estimates that 87 percent of homes built before 1940 contain lead-based paint, while only 24 percent of homes built between 1960 and 1977 are believed to contain it. In the United States, the federal government banned the use of lead-containing paint in consumer settings in 1978 (some states banned it even earlier), but many, many homes and rental units across the country still contain traces of the paint.
So what can you do to protect yourself and your family?
If your home was built after 1978, you are most likely fine. (Though if you’re seeking peace of mind, a quick swab test is not inordinately expensive and never hurt anyone.)
Even if your home was built before 1978, you may not be immediately at risk: Just be sure that the paint on your walls is not deteriorating and is in good shape. Household dust can contain lead from the paint on the walls, but if you are diligent about dusting and vacuuming (and maintaining the paint in high-traffic areas such as windows and window sills, doors and door frames, and stairs), the lead-based paint should not be a problem.
“You do not have to treat it for lead-based paint if you’re not going to disturb the surface,” says Mark Lambert, the owner of Five Star Painting of Colorado Springs and an EPA lead-safe certified contractor.
If you have a child or multiple children in your home, though, watch carefully to be sure they are not chewing on railings or other paint-covered surfaces, or touching walls and then putting their hands in their mouths. (To be completely safe, you may want to consider treating any lead paint–covered surfaces, if you have children living in your home or visiting frequently.)
Lead-based paint is most dangerous when it is deteriorating—peeling, chipping, chalking, cracking, etc. And if you plan to disturb the paint at all, perhaps for a big renovation, a repair, or simply a new coat of paint, you need to take extreme caution, as these activities can create toxic lead dust.
“If you’re going to disturb the surface and it is lead-based paint–positive, then of course you have to treat it for lead,” says Lambert. “The whole idea is, if you’re going to create dust or [are] scraping flakes that will become airborne, then the concern is that you would breathe it in.”
To avoid contact with toxic lead dust, painters must wear filtered masks, specialized suits, and gloves, Lambert says. They also must seal the area being worked on (if it is not a whole-house renovation) off, so the dust doesn’t spread to other rooms, and properly dispose of any materials, especially if some kind of demolition is involved.
If lead paint is present, contractors are legally obligated to follow these steps and other lead-safe work practices (governed by the Renovation, Repair, and Painting, or RPR, Rule) to reduce risk to employees, residents of the home, and the surrounding environment. Failure to follow these rules can lead to a hefty fine. (Chip and Joanna Gaines’s home renovation company, Magnolia Homes,recently settled with the EPA for not following these rules.)
It sounds like scary stuff, but as the old saying goes, knowledge is power. Being aware of the presence of lead paint allows you to take appropriate actions, whether you’re planning a home update or not.
You can hire an inspector or risk assessor to check your home for lead hazards; tests can check a particular area or every surface in a home. You can find a certified inspector near you at epa.gov/lead. If you are considering buying a home, it may be smart to include a lead paint test in the inspection. Sellers are required to disclose the presence of lead paint, but they might be unaware that there is lead paint in their home.
If you already own a home and know (or suspect) it was built before 1978, and you’re taking bids from contractors for a home renovation, you should ask them about lead paint tests. Not all contractors are certified to deal with lead paint, and some may not think to ask if a house was built after 1978. Dealing with lead-based paint appropriately makes jobs more difficult and costly; Lambert says it can raise a quote by 25 percent or more. Some contractors may not want to have to raise their bids accordingly for fear of losing the job, and as such forgo suggesting a test.
“Don’t let someone paint your house who doesn’t know what they’re doing,” Lambert says. “They’re going to get fined.”
It may be tempting to take care of lead paint in your home yourself, but that can also be dangerous.
“I’ve always advised customers, ‘Don’t do it yourself,’” Lambert says. It’s possible, but poses several hazards, especially if there are children or pregnant women in the household, he says.
So, like you would before any painting project or home update, you need to do your research. If your home tests positive for lead paint, you can address the issue by repairing damaged surfaces and repainting them with lead-free paint (ideally by hiring a certified contractor). This is a temporary solution, though, that lasts only as long as the new coat of paint is in good repair. A permanent solution is through abatement, a costly and long process that permanently eliminates lead-based paint hazards. Abatement can be ordered by a state or local government (if a child gets lead poisoning, for example) or be voluntary.
If you are at all unsure about the rules for your state, you can find more information on the EPA’s website. This is also an excellent resource for all things related to lead for homeowners and renters, including testing your family’s exposure to lead and finding certified contractors.