Lead-based paint has been a concern for most of us for over 30 years. Many home-owners have an understanding that lead can be harmful to our health, but most of us have little understanding as to why, and we don’t know what to do about lead in our paint. How do we make a decision to buy or improve our homes? Is there lead-based paint in my home? Can it harm me or my family and friends?
History of Lead-Based Paint
It was almost 150 years ago (late 1800s) that chemists began to understand the benefits of adding lead to paint. The lead acted as a binder to make paint stronger. Lead made paint resist oxidation and the paint would therefore stay shiny over long periods of time. Lead helped to present sunlight (ultraviolet light or “UV radiation”) from fading the paint or breaking it down. Paint lasted longer and was easier to spread evenly, and lead helped the paint stick to whatever we painted. But lead is expensive and not all paint had this special ingredient. Some people could not afford lead-based paint. Anyone who could afford lead-based paint would buy it, because the paint performed so well and lasted so long. Rich folks would even pay extra to have additional lead added to the lead-based paint!
Eventually, scientists began to see the dangerous effects of lead. They found that lead accumulates in our bodies and ingesting or inhaling even small amounts of lead on a regular basis could lead to levels so high that it could harm our brains. They learned that when we ingest or inhale lead, it stayed in our blood for about a month, then transfers into our internal organs for 6-8 months, and finally migrates to our bones, where it stays for 30 years! Finally, our bodies would dispose of the lead, but 30 years is just a long time to eliminate a toxic substance from our bodies. When scientific studies began to indicate that children with high levels of lead in their blood performed poorly in school or had other learning disabilities or social skill problems, the U.S. Government decided to eliminate this hazardous ingredient in residential paint products. In 1978, paint manufacturers were prohibited from adding any lead to paint used for residential construction, and hence the EPA’s warnings to home buyers purchasing homes built before 1978!
All of this does not mean that you should be afraid of lead-based paint. Making your decision to buy a home based on the possibility that it has lead-based paint in, in my opinion, silly. After all, there are thousands of dangerous chemicals in our residential building products and lead is just one of them. How about formaldehyde in carpets and upholstery products, or chlorine in laundry bleach (these are both toxic chemicals that we live with every day). However, knowing a little bit about lead paint can help you make smart decisions when living in or working on a home with lead-based paint.
Lead-Based Paint Renovation, Repair, and Painting
This is a simple guideline you can use to minimize your exposure to lead when working on your house. Remember that most of these points are good old fashioned common sense, and you’ll be surprised how simple and practical they really are.
By following the procedures above methodically, you can almost eliminate exposure to lead dust. And remember that the process is easier if you first remove all furniture, drapes, clothing, and rugs from the work area. In carpeted rooms, cover the entire carpet with 6-mil plastic before beginning work.
As for me, I believe we should still be able to buy lead-based paint because of its numerous advantages to our new plastic paints. And while I respect the government’s efforts to keep us from hurting ourselves, we need only be careful and use common sense when we work on our homes. After all, there are thousands of other chemicals in our paint, carpets, furniture, cabinet finishes, counter-tops, flooring and trim products, insulations, particle boards, chip boards, plywoods, adhesives, laundry rooms and storage shelves. Many of these chemicals are known to be toxic or harmful as well. So the safety procedures listed above should be used whenever working on our homes, regardless of their age.
NOTE: EPA regulations now (as of April 2010) require that contractors working in your home meet special training and procedural requirements, and they must prove to you that they are certified in lead-based renovations and repair.