Home & Garden

The hazards of working with lead-based paint

If your home is pre-1978, it might have lead- containing paint.

Spring is an ideal time to paint. But if you’re going the do-it-yourself route, keep these hazards in mind. Exposure to lead-based paint is the primary cause of lead poisoning in children. Before 1978, lead-based paint was commonly used on interior and exterior building surfaces, so those (especially children) who live in or work on pre-1978 buildings are at risk of lead poisoning.

Ingesting or inhaling lead particles causes lead poisoning. Lead-based paint chips and lead dust — which can’t always be seen — are both serious health hazards. Ingesting or inhaling lead can easily pass unnoticed. Lead can be released into your home during routine activities such as opening and closing windows and doors. Your child might eat sweet-tasting lead-based paint chips, mouth lead dust-covered toys, or teeth on lead-based paint-containing woodwork. You or your child might touch dusty surfaces and then eat food with lead dust on your hands.

Regular maintenance and routine lead-dust cleaning measures are not enough to protect your family when home repairs, remodeling (demolition and construction), and painting (sanding, burning or scraping, and so forth) break lead-based paint-containing surfaces. Lead dust released during these activities can scatter and poison you and your family, pets, neighbors, and workers.

If your home was built before 1978, there is a good chance it may have lead-containing paint, varnish, shellac, or other coatings. Just about any surface that might have been painted with any coating is suspect. Lead-based paint and other lead-containing coatings may be found well below layers of nontoxic paint. If lead-based paint layers are left undamaged, they present little danger. However, special attention should be directed toward surfaces that children can chew or that get a lot of wear and tear, such as windows and window sills, doors and door frames, stairs, railings and banisters, porches and fences. You can prevent harm only by following lead-safe methods.

The key to lead-based paint safety is to prevent exposure in the first place. Work that may break a lead-based paint surface requires special measures. If recent work in your home could have released lead dust, clean immediately — using proper lead-dust cleaning methods — and get yourself and your children tested for lead.

Before you do any work that may break a painted surface — including renovations, remodeling and furniture restoration, as well as plumbing, ventilation and heating duct work, and work on electrical systems — test for lead. You can either send samples to a lab yourself or hire a professional to do a paint inspection for you.


• Dry manual scraping or dry sanding without an attached HEPA (High Efficiency Particulate Aerosol) vacuum

• Open-flame/propane torching

• Dry abrasive blasting

• Unconfined hydroblasting

• Chemical stripping with methylene chloride, except in localized, well-ventilated touch-up


Replace it. Re-placement is most practical with removable objects, such as furniture, doors, doorjambs, and windows. Replacement means removing the object and replacing it with a lead-free item. Wet the area before prying off wood, scraping or sanding, and use lead-safe cleanup methods. Do not burn any lead-containing item. Wrap it, keep it away from children, and remove it from your home.

Cover it. Surfaces that cannot be re-placed are best covered. Consider covering lead-containing surfaces that are impractical to replace (walls, floors, woodwork) with a long-lasting, tough material like sheetrock, paneling or tiles. This new layer must be kept in good condition. Cracks give a place for lead dust to settle, and they are hard to clean. Fill or seal cracks to make them smooth and cleanable.

Encapsulate it. Encapsulants are rolled, brushed or troweled onto the lead-based paint-containing surface. Encapsulation is not a permanent method for covering lead-based paint — if the new surface is not kept in good condition, the lead paint is exposed again, and you are back where you started.

Remove it. Remove lead-based paint by sanding, scraping or chemical stripping. Removal creates a lot of lead dust and is therefore the least desirable way to deal with lead-based paint around the home. However, if you choose removal, refinish the surface or lead residue will continue to leach out of the unfinished surface.

Visit the Environmental Protection Agency’s website at for more information on lead exposure.

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Julia Strzesieski is the marketing coordinator for Cole Hardware and can be reached at [email protected].