If You Think You Have Lead Paint in Your Home, Here’s What To Do About It

Lead paint was finally banned for home use in 1978. But because so many older homes still have lead paint in them, it’s still a major hazard. So what’s the best way to tackle the problem if you suspect it’s lurking in your house? For some advice, we reached out to Jeaneen Zappa of Conservation Consultants Inc., a nonprofit that works with homeowners on energy efficiency and recently started offering home lead testing. (Photo: Ivan Vranić Hvranic via Flickr)

The Allegheny Front: So just how big a problem is lead paint?

Jeaneen Zappa: Lead paint is still the leading cause of lead poisoning in this country — unlike water or soil, which are also significant risk sources. It’s not just confined to urban areas, although you may see a higher concentration of it there simply because of the density of housing. Really, lead paint is tied to the age of the building, and in homes that were built before 1940, about 87 percent of them have a statistical likelihood of having some lead paint. As the homes get “younger,” the risk goes down, but it doesn’t rule it out. Lead paint was not banned in this country until 1978, so homes from, say, 1960 to 1978, might have a 24-percent chance of having lead.

AF: And how big an issue is it in Allegheny County?

JZ: It’s a pretty significant issue in Allegheny County. The housing stock in the city of Pittsburgh has been ranked as the 8th-oldest in the United States. More than 37 percent of the homes were built before 1956, so that puts them right squarely in the ballpark of when lead paint was the standard that was used in homes — and also squarely in the point in time in which new owners are likely to be doing some kind of renovation.

LISTEN: What to do if you have lead paint in your home

AF: And how do you know if you have lead paint in your home? Can you see it?

JZ: You really can’t see lead paint. There’s no easy way to tell just by looking at it unless you’re using specialized diagnostic equipment. Our suggestions are in line with those of the EPA, which has this great handout on their website [to determine] if your home should be tested. Really, the key things are if there’s a child under the age of six in your home, then you want to give serious consideration because that’s a population that is at great health risk should there be exposure to lead. If you’re planning on doing some renovations to your home — because it will create dust when you’re drilling or sawing or sanding — you could disturb that paint. Don’t use a heat gun. It will exacerbate the issue of lead paint exposure. Even drilling a hole to hang something on your wall can create enough lead paint dust that you’re creating a hazard.

AF: So how does lead testing work?

JZ: In your home, you really want to be looking at any area where there’s chipped paint or paint dust that has built up by that paint deteriorating over time. When we go into test, we will collect samples if there is actually flaked paint. We can also take water and soil samples. And all three have to be sent to an accredited lab for chemical analysis. We’ll also typically take dust swipes. And you want to have at least three or four samples to evaluate so your results are valid, and you typically want to take samples from a couple of different areas. I might be taking from a windowsill; I might be taking from down along the baseboard — wherever that dust might be likely to accumulate, and particularly, where a toddler is likely to play and put their fingers in their mouth. The other thing we do in the house is we use a specialized piece of equipment called an XRF device — XRF stands for X-ray fluorescence analyzer. It’s a specialized piece of equipment that uses a low-level radioactive isotope to actually measure the paint composition to determine if there’s lead in it. And we can get an answer right then and there.

AF: And it looks at all the layers of paint?

JZ: That’s a great question. It does. It actually goes down to the base layers and all the layers that have been added on top of that.

Are you and your family at risk of lead poisoning? Use this checklist from the EPA to evaluate some common risk factors.

AF: So once you get the lead test back, and you’ve reached the threshold where there has to be action taken, what happens next?

JZ: If you have kids, you really want to get them retested. They were probably tested in their early pediatric visits, but you want to have that blood lead level testing done for you and your family members — just to make sure you’re not overly exposed. The problem might not exist in every single room, so you want to tackle the areas where you have the highest lead, and you might be able to take care of [it] yourselves. There are some really great guidelines offered by EPA about how to protect yourself and the residents of your household. There are pretty simple steps you can take. You don’t always have to get rid of all the lead paint. What you have to do is contain it.

AF: So how do you do that?

JZ: With the caveat that we are not lead paint remediators, you want to first remove children from the home before you do this. You want to be wearing a significant filtering mask and probably some protective garments — the disposable zip-on suits you can buy at any local hardware — and gloves. And then you want to use a HEPA vacuum and vacuum any of the paint chips and dust, bag it and securely dispose of it. Don’t just dump it into a bin. You want to use wet sanding when you can, so you can contain it — much like someone who may have allergies may use a wet dusting method. So once you’ve removed the visible stuff, you want to paint over it. You don’t want it to continue to degrade and chip and flake and turn into dust. Now, if your problem is so significant that you’re down to bare wood, you’re really going to need a more professional-grade remediation, and you should find a qualified contractor who’s going to use lead-safe practices.

AF: Your nonprofit just started offering lead testing. Why, and why now?

JZ: Lead has really been a problem for a long time. But the only silver lining —and I will emphasize only — in the national lead water crisis is that people are paying attention again to lead in their homes. And because we have older housing stock, the lead exposures from soil or water or paint are really important home health considerations. Increasingly, in what we do, we’re finding there’s an intersection of home health with home energy. You really can’t tighten up a house without thinking about what’s going on inside of it— whether it’s lead exposure or radon, which is also an important issue — we’re sitting on top of a radon hot spot in our portion of the country. And we also have a lot of moisture issues. We serve lower-income households primarily. We’re in about 3,000 homes each year, and roughly 30 percent of the homes in which we do a whole house energy audit have a moisture issue of some sort in the basement. That can precipitate a whole bunch of other kinds of issues, including causing paint to peel. And many times, it is unfortunately lead-based paint. So we feel there’s a responsibility for us to really think about how those pieces work together in a house and to help prevent any additional complications for the occupants.

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Jeaneen Zappa is the executive director of Conservation Consultants Inc., a nonprofit that offers home lead testing. CCI’s lead testing initiative is funded in part by The Heinz Endowments, which also helps fund The Allegheny Front.