Lead Paint - Reducing Your Family's Risk

William Kibbel III, The Home Inspector

Editor's Note: Please also see our article, "Lead Poisoning and Children - The Risks in Your Old House."

We're looking at historic homes for sale in our area with the intent of eventually purchasing one. We've done a lot of the work on our current home (1960s cape) and feel confident that we can handle most challenges in an older model. Since we have two young children, my biggest concern is lead paint. Should we test the paint for lead? If it has lead, is it expensive to have it removed?

Traditionally, paint manufacturers used lead to bolster pigment, speed up drying, and increase flexibility and permanence. However, health authorities discovered that lead-based paint is a primary source of lead poisoning, especially in kids under the age of seven. Adults, pets, and even unborn children can be seriously affected as well.

According to the U. S. Environmental Protection Agency, about two-thirds of homes built before 1940, and half of the homes built between 1940 and 1960, have heavy doses of lead in the paint. Lead paint can also be found in homes constructed between 1960 and 1980, although with much less frequency. In 1978, the U. S. Consumer Product Safety Commission lowered the maximum allowable lead content in paint to about half a percent--a trace amount. If you're considering buying a home built before 1980, qualified testing for lead paint could in fact identify lead, but the test alone might not determine if a hazard truly exists.

Though complete lead paint abatement could minimize the risk of poisoning, it could also permanently alter some of the historic details of an old home. Therefore, you might want to consider a less dramatic--and less costly--course of action. Some owners of old homes choose to cover problem areas with wallpaper. This works well for flat surfaces. For items such as windowsills or doors, replacement might be your best option.

In addition to larger surfaces covered with lead paint, homeowners should be aware of an often-neglected source of poisoning--lead paint dust. Friction areas, like windows sliding up and down and doors rubbing on their jambs, can create a fine dust that can contain lead. Normal wear and aging can also allow other old painted surfaces to release very fine lead-containing particles into the air. This dust can be dangerous if inhaled or digested.

As a dad of two, I've been a frequent witness to the crawlers' and toddlers' desire to put their hands, and everything else, into their mouths. In an older home, there's a good possibility that their little hands and objects have picked up dust that could contain lead. To minimize the lead containing dust, consider these maintenance/housekeeping measures:

  • Immediately repair any damaged painted surfaces
  • Have old paint professionally removed from friction surfaces, like doors, window sashes, and their frames
  • Regularly clean all horizontal surfaces, like window sills and floors with a "damp" method cleaning and rinse, sponges, mops, and rags constantly
  • Get an HEPA-filter equipped vacuum and use it regularly on carpet and upholstery
  • Frequently wash your kids' hands, toys, and everything else they put in their mouths

It's also a good idea to tell your family doctor that you live in an old home. Ask about regular blood testing and specific food and nutrition tips that can reduce lead levels.

Finally, be very cautious when performing house repairs, restoration, or remodeling, as this can disturb and distribute large amounts of lead containing dust throughout your family's home. You can read about a few excellent precautions from the National Safety Council.

About the Author
William Kibbel III is a home inspector and restoration consultant specializing in historic residential and commercial buildings. He is vice president of Tri-County Inspection Company, serving Southeastern Pennsylvania and Central New Jersey.

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