Shortly after Halley Bock’s son, Niko, took his first steps, Bock hit the
childproofing section of her local home improvement store. She bought gates, cabinet latches and, on a whim, picked up a lead paint test kit.
Bock ran the swab over the windowsill in her son’s room, which had chipping paint and was close enough to the ground for her son to reach. “The test turned pink right away,” Bock says. “Then went to the next spot, and it was pink again. I knew that my son had been touching those areas. I felt that all of a sudden, all of us were in danger.”
Now that Bock knew there was a lead problem in the house, she had to figure out how to fix it. Before they became parents, she and her partner did a lot of home renovation work themselves. An infrared heat paint removal system would have cost $3,000 to purchase, a considerable savings from the up to $30,000 quoted to her by painting contractors and lead abatement companies.
“I thought about it for a moment, but then I looked around at all the trim and
decided that would take months,” Bock says. “My son was already walking, and we needed it done as quickly as possible. I feel we made the right decision.”
Bock decided to hire a company that specializes in lead and asbestos abatement. Windows and doors were removed and dipped to remove the paint. The trim work was all replaced. The job took 10 days at a cost of $15,000.
Lead experts say that Bock’s decision to hire a lead removal expert was the safest and wisest one she could have made. Certified lead abatement specialists know proper techniques to reduce dust and properly clean up the job site. But for those who insist upon doing reconstruction work themselves, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has established a list of guidelines.
The Danger of Lead
Before the Consumer Product Safety Commission issued a regulatory proceeding banning lead paint in 1977, lead-based paint was the preferred choice of painting contractors because of its superior durability and ability to adhere to wood surfaces. The EPA estimates that lead is found in 24 percent of homes built between 1960 and 1978, 69 percent of homes built between 1940 and 1960 and 87 percent of homes built before 1940.
Lead paint was banned for in-home use after a 1975 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) study of children who grew up near a lead smelter in El Paso, Texas, showed that the greater a child’s lead exposure, the lower their IQs and the higher the chance of behavior and reaction time problems.
Lead generally enters the body through paint dust or chips that are ingested, which is why infants and young children—who have a propensity to put anything and everything in their mouths—are at greatest risk for exposure. Lead can also be inhaled, especially during a remodeling project when sanding a painted wall aerosolizes the toxin. For this reason, pregnant women are strongly advised to take precautions regarding lead exposure because the heavy metal can affect fetal development.
Children aren’t the only ones at risk. Adults exposed to the heavy metal are at increased risk of hypertension, which can lead to heart disease, as well as memory problems.
“The brain is always making new cells, so adults can see similar intellectual impairments to those we see in children exposed to lead,” says John Rosen, M.D., head of the Lead Poisoning Prevention Program at the Children’s Hospital at Montefiore Medical Center in New York City. “For example, lead exposure can result in an adult getting in the car to go to the local supermarket but then forgetting where they are going, what their task is or forgetting the shopping list.”
Since lead’s removal from gasoline and paint, lead blood levels in children have declined 90 percent. But the risk of exposure still exists and—according to one study—is one the rise. Home renovation without proper lead abatement techniques is responsible for a growing percentage of lead poisoning cases. A 2009 CDC report that looked at New York state showed that between 1993 to 1994 and 2006 to 2007, the number of children with elevated blood lead levels due to home renovation work doubled from seven to 14 percent of all cases.
If you own a home built before 1978, federal law requires that you disclose to tenants or future owners any knowledge you have regarding the existence of lead paint in the house.
Peeling, chipping and cracking lead paint should be dealt with immediately, the EPA advises, but lead paint that is good condition is not considered a health hazard. If you are unsure whether your paint has lead in it, home kits such as the one Bock used are available but EPA says they are not always accurate. Consumer Reports magazine tested several kits and found Homax Lead Check, LeadCheck Household Lead Test Kit and Abotex Lead Inspector to be the most reliable. Trained professionals can give you a thorough lead assessment.
Information for experts in your area is available at the National Lead Information Center. If you do decide to embark on this work yourself, educate yourself first, says Ada Duffey, president of the Milwaukee Lead/Asbestos Information Center who trains contractors on safe lead paint removal
techniques. “Homeowners have poisoned their own children, accidentally and unintentionally, because they were working with lead,” Duffey says. “Homeowners should make sure that they are trained and informed before they do this work.”
The EPA says there are three rules to remember when dealing with lead paint. They are:
1. Contain the Work Area
“Cover up any heat vents, doors or other pathways where dust can travel throughout the house,” Duffey says. “Keep the windows closed because you don’t want the dust getting outside and into your soil, where your kids play or it can be tracked back into the house. If you are scraping paint outside, put plastic down first.”
2. Minimize Dust
Use wet sanding techniques and have a spray bottle on hand as you work to keep dust to a minimum. Score wood before you pry it off, Duffey says, and pay special attention to windows. “You’ve got all the junk that accumulates in the bottom, you’ve got the sashes moving up and down and then there is all the lead paint friction on the side where the sashes are rubbing against the jam,” she says. “Put jam liners in to reduce the friction.”
The EPA advises never using open-flame burning or torching techniques on lead paint. It also recommends that heat guns should never be hotter than 1,100 degrees.
To protect yourself from exposure, Duffey recommends using an air respirator device to prevent breathing in dust. Those paper masks don’t offer adequate protection. Also, wear a work suit and take it off before leaving the work area. “I’ve had people in my class that have worked all day and then they don’t change their clothes,” Duffey says. “They go home and hug their kids and that’s how their children got lead poisoning.”
3. Clean Up Thoroughly
Never sweep up dust. Instead, use a vacuum with a HEPA filter and mop it up. Plastic sheeting should be thrown away, and all surfaces should be washed down. Duffey recommends requesting a lead dust test done by an EPA-certified professional. A list is available through the National Lead Information Center.
All these precautions are necessary because it does not take a lot of lead to cause significant health problems.
“The whole family should be out of the house during the time that the home renovation is carried out and until the home is safe to return to,” Dr. Rosen says, adding that ideally, any renovation involving lead paint will only be done by a professional. The risk, he says, is just too great.
Credit: Renovate Your World