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Nearly 35 million homes in the U.S. contain a serious toxin: the lead-based paint coating their walls, ceilings and fixtures. Exposure to lead can cause devastating health effects — both physical and mental — long-term disabilities and even death. Children and pregnant women, in particular, are at risk for serious harm due to lead poisoning.
It’s no longer used today, but lead was prevalent in paint for much of the 20th century. Many older buildings still have it — and, though it’s often associated with institutional structures and low-income areas, no property is immune to the problem. “Some of the nicest and worst homes in a community are old and have lead paint, so it’s not just relegated to vulnerable communities,” says Aaron Reuben, a clinical neuropsychology intern at the Medical University of South Carolina.
If you rent or own an older residence — one built before the 1980s — it’s important to learn about lead paint and the steps you can take to rid your home of the danger.
The lead-paint problem
The homes most at risk are those built before 1978, the year the federal government banned lead paint (several states had already outlawed the substance in the previous years). As a result, “your risk goes to zero if built after 1978, and goes up the further you go back in time, because older homes are more likely to contain lead paint and more likely to experience paint exfoliation,” Reuben says. “Homes built before 1950 tend to have higher lead levels and be exposed to higher levels of lead dust, and there are even higher levels before that in the ‘20s.”
Millions of private and government-owned homes alike still harbor lead paint, which may be beneath newer paint. It doesn’t usually pose a danger if the paint above it is in good shape. But “if you are in an older home, and you start to see any type of paint chips, it’s not something to take lightly, especially if you have pets or children,” according to Mallory Micetich, vice president of corporate communications at Angi, the contractor search service. “If you’re seeing it, it’s probably more of a problem than you think. It’s only perfectly OK to live in a home with lead paint if the paint is sealed.”
You’ll need to take immediate action if the surface paint is deteriorating in any way, including peeling, chipping or chalking. You should be especially concerned about high-use surfaces, such as window sills and banisters — especially those that children can easily reach.
Dangers of lead poisoning
To be harmful, lead has to be ingested: It usually enters the body through breathing or swallowing. You might breathe lead dust, particularly during activities such as renovations that disturb painted surfaces. You may also swallow lead dust that settles on food or food preparation surfaces. Visible peeling, chipping, cracking or other forms of disrepair in paint probably indicates that invisible lead dust is present in the home’s air.
As for swallowing, though adults probably wouldn’t pop a paint chip in their mouths, children might well eat them, especially since lead tastes sweet. They may also be at risk of ingesting leaded dirt when playing outside, since lead paint on porches, siding and exteriors deteriorates easily and releases lead into the surrounding soil. Such incidents are likely to result in lead poisoning, the most severe and harmful form of lead exposure.
Who’s most at risk from lead exposure
Children under 6 years old are highly susceptible to lead poisoning, since their brains and nervous systems are more sensitive to its damaging effects. Their growing bodies absorb more lead compared to adults. In children, exposure to lead even at a low level can cause life-altering damage to vital organs as well as serious cognitive disabilities. When children are exposed to lead at a high level, they may experience seizures, unconsciousness and even death.
But adults can also experience serious cognitive and physical harm from lead exposure. Pregnant people and seniors are at the highest risk level. Fetuses may sustain serious damage from lead exposure; the elderly typically experience a faster rate of cognitive decline compared to their peers.
Detecting lead paint
Prior to renting or buying a home, you are entitled to lead paint disclosures under the Residential Lead-Based Paint Hazard Reduction Act of 1992, also known as Title X. The legislation requires sellers and landlords to disclose known information about lead-based paint and lead-based paint hazards prior to selling or leasing most housing built before 1978. Most private housing, public housing, federally owned housing and housing receiving federal assistance is subject to this regulation.
Under Title X, sellers and landlords must provide renters or buyers with information about lead paint hazards in general as well as specific details about lead-based paint on their property. They are also required to provide homebuyers with a 10-day period to obtain a paint inspection or risk assessment.
You can hire a lead-based-paint inspector or assessor to investigate whether your home has lead hazards from paint, dust or soil. They can provide recommendations on how to protect yourself from the presence of lead and may be able to assist with mitigation. Expect the assessment to cost $300 to $350. Soil and water testing costs an additional $100-$300.
You can also purchase a lead test kit at a hardware store if you need to encourage your landlord to take action, or if you need an answer in the period between suspecting lead paint and obtaining an assessment. Given that DIY tests can be unreliable, however, they should be treated as a stopgap measure, and an inspection is the only way to really be sure.
Dealing with lead paint
If your inspector or assessor has determined that your home contains lead paint, it’s best to work with them on their recommendations. Basically, there are two approaches: cover it up or remove it. It depends largely on the condition of the paint and the painted surface.
If the painted surface is in good condition
It may not be necessary to remove lead paint if the paint is in good repair. Covering lead paint with fresh paint or wallpaper should be sufficient to minimize the hazard, but be aware that the problem will return if the covering wears away. You can also enclose lead paint surfaces with a durable and fire-resistant material, such as aluminum or vinyl.
You might also consider encapsulation. Encapsulants are liquids or adhesives — in fact, you can buy special encapsulating paint — that are applied over the lead-painted surface. Encapsulation techniques create a waterproof layer, sealing in the toxic lead chemicals and preventing the release of tainted dust or splinters. But they require clean, dry surfaces and periodic maintenance to keep the lead contained.
If the painted surface is deteriorating
If the lead paint looks dicey — if it is already flaking, chipping or peeling — then it could already be releasing toxins into the air. So covering or encapsulating won’t be enough: It has to go. Some also feel it’s better to remove lead paint, whatever its condition, from high-friction surfaces that rub on each other, or get constant handling, such as doors, banisters, and window sills and frames.
Removing lead paint is a delicate and complex procedure — there are several methods, including hand scraping, power sanding and heat stripping — but it’s best left to a professional, who can use the tools properly, minimize the spread of dust, and follow Environmental Protection Agency best practices for disposing of the debris.
Working with a lead paint removal pro
When you look for a pro to remove your lead paint, you should ensure that they possess the EPA’s lead renovation, repair and painting (RRP) certification (to become certified, a contractor must successfully complete an EPA or state-approved training course). The EPA’s website offers a locator of RRP firms.
Make sure that the contractor and all employees working on the home have direct experience with lead paint removal, preferably in residences. In addition, ask what methods they use to test for the presence of lead and to remove it. You should also learn about what steps they take to discard hazardous material once they have removed it from your home.
Renovators need to work in one room at a time and seal off the rest of the house. To help them, you’ll probably have to remove all objects and furniture from the room, or cover these items with two sheets of plastic and seal the plastic to the wall or floor with duct tape. Children and pregnant people must stay out of the work area until cleanup is complete.
Expect lead paint removal to cost $8 to $17 a square foot. In extreme cases, you may need to replace doors or walls, which could cost upward of $1,000. But smaller mitigation projects, like repairing a ledge, could cost as little as $100.
Once you’ve removed the lead paint, you’ll need to deal with repainting the affected surfaces. Your renovator may take care of both replacement and repainting services, though some contractors only provide removal and post-removal cleaning. You’ll want to compare estimates from a few local pros to see who might be able to handle the whole project for you.
Bottom line on lead paint in your home
If you live in a pre-1978 home or apartment, it’s important to maintain regular cleaning practices to minimize the risk of lead exposure — especially if you’ve opted for the cover-up approaches. You should monitor and address paint deterioration and resolve water leakages as soon as they occur. Be sure to maintain a clean and dust-free environment, and pay close attention to areas where friction may generate paint chips and dust.
And if you have any doubts about the paint, don’t just harbor it. “As consumers, as homeowners, we know a lot about our home, but we’re not going to be the expert when it comes to hazards, health and safety,” Angi’s Micetich says. “Call an EPA-certified professional and let them handle it from there.”
Addressing lead paint in your home can be a stressful process, sure. But not nearly as stressful or dangerous as not dealing with it, for your family and yourself.