Lead gives paint greater durability and a more attractive finish, so this metal was once a common component in paints. As manufacturers eventually realized, though, lead-based paint poses a serious health hazard, particularly to children.
If your home has lead paint, taking steps to remove or encapsulate it as soon as possible will protect your family’s health. Which option is better for you depends on the condition of the paint, where it’s located, and your budget.
Beautiful on Your Wall, Hard on Your Health
With fast drying times and a fresh, glossy finish that resists scratches and moisture, lead-based paint once seemed like a no-fail option. These paints were so popular, in fact, that they were used in almost 75 percent of homes built before 1978 and an even higher percentage of pre-1945 homes.
Over time, though, lead paint revealed its powerfully damaging effects. If inhaled or ingested, lead from paint can cause a wide range of health issues in adults, including digestive problems, mood disturbances, and high blood pressure.
In addition, children younger than six are at risk of learning disabilities, growth delays, and behavioral problems. Growing children absorb more lead than adults, their nervous systems are more sensitive, and they’re more likely to put their fingers in their mouths or even eat lead paint for its sweet taste.
A pregnant woman can also pass lead to her unborn baby, leading to brain and nervous system damage.
In 1978, the federal government banned household use of lead paint, but it’s still present in millions of homes.
Know Your Options for Staying Safe
Lead paint in good condition isn’t immediately dangerous. It’s when the paint starts to chip, peel or otherwise deteriorate that the problems start. Tiny flakes accumulate on your floors, furniture, and other surfaces, eventually finding their way into your food and drink.
That doesn’t mean you can safely ignore undamaged lead paint, though. If you have children or you’re planning to, for their safety, either encapsulate or remove the paint even if it’s in perfect condition.
If you ever rent the property out, by federal law, you’re obligated to at least encapsulate any lead paint and disclose its presence to your tenants. You’ll then need to inspect the paint every year and whenever a new tenant moves in.
Encapsulation and removal are the two basic options for dealing with the lead paint.
Encapsulation – This method involves sealing off the lead paint with a specially formulated encapsulation paint or primer, or with a structure such as a wall.
It’s usually the simpler, cheaper way to go, and it’s often safer because there’s no risk of spreading lead dust while you work. Even so, it’s not an option for paint that’s damaged in any way or for surfaces subject to friction, such as floors and doors.
Keep in mind that different surfaces require different encapsulation methods. You’ll also need to maintain the surface regularly to prevent it from deteriorating and spreading lead.
Removal – This usually means scraping or sanding the paint from the surface and disposing of it in a safe way so that no lead paint remains.
While removal eliminates the risk completely and permanently, it’s also an involved and potentially expensive process that carries the risk of contaminating the house with lead dust. If done incorrectly, it will make your problem worse.
For damaged paint, though, it’s the only safe option. If the painted surface is something that’s easy to remove, such as a door or a window frame, you’re better off replacing it with a new one.
Encapsulation: Quick and Easy Protection
The easiest approach to encapsulation is to apply a lead encapsulation paint or primer over the lead paint. This paint bonds to the lead paint and forms a protective barrier. Some also include a bitter-tasting substance to discourage children from chewing the paint.
Once the encapsulation layer is dry, you can apply any topcoat paint you want over it. Before you buy, makes sure the encapsulation paint you want is right for the material you plan to seal.
Follow the manufacturer’s instructions precisely to ensure an effective barrier. In most cases, it’s a simple matter of cleaning the surface and painting it.
Wipe down the surface with a trisodium phosphate (TSP) cleaner or an alternative. Wear thick gloves, goggles, and a long-sleeved shirt when working with TSP. Then apply the encapsulation paint at the recommended thickness. It might take two or three coats. Measure carefully because a layer that’s too thin won’t be effective.
The next option for encapsulation is to cover the painted surface with other material. You can cover a wall with drywall or wood paneling or a floor with tile.
Finish all the joints and seams carefully to create a dust-tight seal. Regularly inspect the material because if it gets damaged, the risk of lead exposure returns.
Removal: Hard Work for Permanent Protection
All removal methods produce some lead dust, so if possible, call a certified lead remediation professional to handle the job. A professional is also more likely to have a power sander with a HEPA-filter vacuum attachment or a heat gun they’re skilled in using to get the work done quickly and safely.
Your local regulations might even require professional removal.
If you do it yourself, wet scraping is the simplest approach. This involves misting the painted surface with water to hold down the dust, then scraping the paint off with a hand scraper. Finish up by using a sanding sponge to remove the remaining paint residue. As you work, wipe up any mess frequently to control dust.
If the whole exterior of your house is painted in lead paint, you might not be able to remove it completely by scraping. In this case, you can get an extra layer of protection by applying lead encapsulation paint after you scrape off what you can.
Never dry scrape, dry sand, use a power sander without a HEPA-filter vacuum or use any high-temperature tool to remove lead paint. These methods all pose a dangerously high risk of lead exposure.
Staying Safe During a Removal Job
Children, pregnant women, and pets should stay clear of the work area until it’s been cleaned. If the job will take more than a day and you won’t be able to clean up every day, spend the night somewhere else until the whole project is done.
Work with one room at a time. Remove everything from the room, including curtains and rugs. Anything left in the room can become dangerously contaminated, and ordinary cleaning can’t always remove lead dust.
Start sealing off the room by taping a piece of 6-mil poly plastic sheeting around the entire perimeter of the door. Cut a slit for entry. Tape another plastic sheet to the top of the door to stop any escaping dust.
Then, if you’re removing paint from a small area in the room, such as a window frame, it’s enough to cover the floor with plastic sheeting 5 ft. out from your work area. Then tape plastic sheeting securely over your HVAC air ducts and turn off your HVAC system to prevent any airflow that can spread dust.
If you’re cleaning a wall, though, spread plastic sheeting over the whole floor and seal the entire perimeter by taping it to the baseboards or the wall above them.
For an exterior paint removal job, lay a 6-mil poly plastic sheet at least 5 ft. out from your work area. Either roll up the edges or use cardboard to create a raised barrier that keeps the debris contained.
Wear a disposable coverall designed for lead abatement work, along with goggles, heavy rubber gloves, and disposable coverings for your shoes and hair. You’ll also need a half facepiece respirator with P100 HEPA (High Efficiency Particulate Air) filters.
To avoid getting lead in your mouth, don’t eat, drink or smoke while you work and wash your hands and face thoroughly before consuming anything on breaks.
When you’re done for the day, but you’ll be continuing the next day, you still need to clean your work area thoroughly. It might sound like a hassle, but it’s critical to preventing the spread of lead dust around your house. It’s even more important if you’re going to be around children or a pregnant woman.
Mist the debris with water and collect it in heavy plastic bags. Place all your disposable protective clothing in the bag and close the bag securely. In most areas, you can throw small bags of lead paint debris out with your regular trash, but check your local regulations first.
After you leave the room, use a HEPA-filtered vacuum cleaner to remove lingering dust from your clothes. Put your work clothes aside to be washed separately and take a shower.
Once the whole paint-removal job is done, clean all surfaces including the walls, window sills, cabinetry, and ceiling, with a HEPA-filtered vacuum. Then mop or wipe down these surfaces with water. Finish up by going over every surface with the HEPA-filtered vacuum a final time.
If your home is one of the many with lead paint, doing something about it now will protect your family’s health in the future. If the paint is deteriorating even slightly, removal is the best option. Have the job done professionally or take the right precautions before you do it yourself, and you can get rid of the problem permanently.
For paint that’s still in good condition, though, encapsulation is often the more practical route. Not sure which approach to take? Contact a certified lead abatement contractor for guidance.