Lead-based paint is hazardous to your health

  • Lead-based paint is a major source of lead poisoning for children and can also affect adults.
  • In children, lead poisoning can cause irreversible brain damage and can impair mental functioning.  It can retard mental and physical development and reduce attention span.  It can also retard fetal development even at extremely low levels of lead.
  • In adults, it can cause irritability, poor muscle coordination, and nerve damage to the sense organs and nerves controlling the body.
  • Lead poisoning may also cause problems with reproduction (such as a decreased sperm count).  It may also increase blood pressure.
  • Young children, fetuses, infants, and adults with high blood pressure are the most vulnerable to the effects of lead.

Children should be screened for lead poisoning

  • In communities where the houses are older and/or deteriorating, take advantage of available screening programs offered by local health departments and have children checked regularly to see if they are suffering from lead poisoning.
  • Because the early symptoms of lead poisoning are easy to confuse with other illnesses, it is difficult to diagnose lead poisoning without medical testing.
  • Early symptoms may include persistent tiredness, irritability, loss of appetite, stomach discomfort, reduced attention span, insomnia, and constipation.
  • Failure to treat children in the early stages can cause long-term or permanent health damage.
  • The current blood lead level, which defines lead poisoning, is 10 micrograms of lead per deciliter of blood. However, since poisoning may occur at lower levels than previously thought, various federal agencies are considering whether this level should be lowered further so that lead poisoning prevention programs will have the latest information on testing children for lead poisoning.

Consumers can be exposed to lead from paint

  • Eating paint chips is one way young children are exposed to lead.
  • It is not the most common way that consumers, in general, are exposed to lead.
  •  Ingesting and inhaling lead dust that is created as lead-based paint “chalks,” chips, or peels from deteriorated surfaces can expose consumers to lead.
  • Walking on small paint chips found on the floor, or opening and closing a painted frame window, can also create lead dust.
  • Other sources of lead include deposits that may be present in homes after years of use of leaded gasoline and from industrial sources like smelting.
  • Consumers can also generate lead dust by sanding lead-based paint or by scraping or heating lead-based paint.
  • Lead dust can settle on floors, walls, and furniture.
  • Under these conditions, children can ingest lead dust from hand-to-mouth con- tact or in food.
  • Settled lead dust can re-enter the air through cleaning, such as sweeping or vacuuming, or by movement of people throughout the house.

Older homes may contain lead based paint

  • Lead was used as a pigment and drying agent in “alkyd” oil based paint.  “Latex” water based paints generally have not contained lead.
  • About two-thirds of the homes built before 1940 and one-half of the homes built from 1940 to 1960 contain heavily leaded paint.
  • Some homes built after 1960 also contain heavily leaded paint.
  • It may be on any interior or exterior surface, particularly on woodwork, doors, and windows.
  • In 1978, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission lowered the legal maximum lead content in most kinds of paint to 0.06% (a trace amount).
  • Consider having the paint in homes constructed before the 1980s tested for lead before renovating or if the paint or underlying surface is deteriorating. This is particularly important if infants, children, or pregnant women are present.

Consumers can have paint tested for lead

  • There are do-it-yourself kits available.  However, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission has not evaluated any of these kits.
  • One home test kit uses sodium sulfide solution. This procedure requires you to place a drop of sodium sulfide solution on a paint chip. The paint chip slowly turns darker if lead is present. There are problems with this test, however.  Other metals may cause false positive results, and resins in the paint may prevent the sulfide from causing the paint chip to change color. Thus, the presence of lead may not be correctly indicated. In addition, the darkening may be detected only on very light-colored paint.
  • Another in-home test requires a trained professional who can operate the equipment safely. This test uses X-ray fluorescence to determine if the paint contains lead.  Although the test can be done in your home, it should be done only by professionals trained by the equipment manufacturer or who have passed a state or local government training course, since the equipment contains radioactive materials.
  • Consumers may choose to have a testing laboratory test a paint sample for lead.
  •  Lab testing is considered more reliable than other methods.  Lab tests may cost from $20 to $50 per sample.

To have the lab test for lead paint, consumers may:

  • Get sample containers from the lab or use re-sealable plastic bags. Label the containers or bags with the consumer’s name and the location in the house from which each paint sample was taken.  Several samples should be taken from each affected room (see HUD Guidelines discussed below).
  • Use a sharp knife to cut through the edges of the sample paint. The lab should tell you the size of the sample needed. It will probably be about 2 inches by 2 inches.
  • Lift off the paint with a clean putty knife and put it into the container. Be sure to take a sample of all layers of paint, since only the lower layers may contain lead. Do not include any of the underlying wood, plaster, metal, and brick.
  • Wipe the surface and any paint dust with a wet cloth or paper towel and discard the cloth or towel.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) recommends that action to reduce exposure should be taken when the lead in paint is greater than 0.5% by lab testing or greater than 1.0 milligrams per square centimeter by X-ray fluorescence. Action is especially important when paint is deteriorating or when infants, children, or pregnant women are present. Consumers can reduce exposure to lead-based paint.

If you have lead-based paint, you should take steps to reduce your exposure to lead

Have the painted item replaced:

  • You can replace a door or other easily removed item if you can do it without creating lead dust. Items that are difficult to remove should be replaced by professionals who will control and contain lead dust.

Cover the lead-based paint:

  • You can spray the surface with a sealant or cover it with gypsum wallboard.  However, painting over lead-based paint with non-lead paint is not a long-term solution. Even though the lead-based paint may be covered by non-lead paint, the lead-based paint may continue to loosen from the surface below and create lead dust. The new paint may also partially mix with the lead-based paint, and lead dust will be released when the new paint begins to deteriorate.

Have the lead-based paint removed:

  • Have professionals trained in removing lead-based paint do this work. Each of the paint-removal methods (sandpaper, scrapers, chemicals, sandblasters, and torches or heat guns) can produce lead fumes or dust. Fumes or dust can become airborne and be inhaled or ingested. Wet methods help reduce the amount of lead dust. Removing moldings, trim, window sills, and other painted surfaces for professional paint stripping outside the home may also create dust. Be sure the professionals contain the lead dust. Wet-wipe all surfaces to remove any dust or paint chips.

Wet-clean the area before re-entry:

  • You can remove a small amount of lead-based paint if you can avoid creating any dust. Make sure the surface is less than about one square foot (such as a window sill).  Any job larger than about one square foot should be done by professionals. Make sure you can use a wet method (such as a liquid paint stripper).

Reduce lead dust exposure:

  • You can periodically wet mop and wipe surfaces and floors with a high phosphorous (at least 5%) cleaning solution. Wear waterproof gloves to prevent skin irritation. Avoid activities that will disturb or damage lead based paint and create dust. This is a preventive measure and is not an alternative to replacement or removal.

Contact your state and local health departments lead poisoning prevention programs and housing authorities for information about testing labs and contractors who can safely remove lead-based paint.  The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) prepared guidelines for removing lead-based paint.  Ask contractors about their qualifications, experience removing lead-based paint, and plans to follow these guidelines.