Was your house or apartment built before 1978? If it was, there may be lead-based paint on the inside and out. That could pose a serious risk of lead poisoning, especially if you’re pregnant or have small children.
Should you be concerned about lead paint in your home? Here are some quick tips that can help you decide whether you need to test your home for lead -- with suggestions on what to do if you find it.
What’s the Problem With Lead-Based Paint?
Lead is a toxic metal that can cause serious health problems if it's ingested or if dust containing lead is inhaled. Up until 1978, when federal regulations restricted the use of lead in household paint, lead was a common component in exterior and interior paints.
As long as lead paint is in good condition, and the surface hasn't been broken, the paint doesn't pose a serious health threat. The problem comes when the lead paint starts deteriorating, when lead dust and flakes of lead paint begin accumulating on surfaces such as window sills, counter tops, and floors, as well as on children's toys, clothes, and bedding. It can also contaminate soil around the house. Small children, who have a tendency to put their hands and other objects in their mouth, are at an increased risk of accumulating harmful amounts of lead in their bodies.
Is Lead Poisoning Only a Problem for Small Children?
Anyone can be dangerously affected by exposure to lead. But children under age 6 are especially vulnerable to lead poisoning, for several reasons.
Young children have a tendency to put things that can have lead dust on them into their mouths. And the younger they are, the greater the chance a child may put chips of peeling paint, lead dust, or lead-contaminated soil in their mouth. Consequently, young children are much more likely to consume large amounts of lead than older kids or adults, whose main risk comes from breathing lead dust.
Children's growing bodies also absorb more lead than adult bodies do, and a young child's brain and nervous system are more sensitive to the damage lead can cause. But lead can and does affect adults, especially after long-term exposure.
Lead also poses a threat for unborn babies. If there is lead in the mother's system, it can pass to the fetus and cause premature birth, low birth weight, and brain and nerve damage.
What Are the Health Effects of Lead Exposure?
In children, high levels of lead can cause:
- Damage to the brain and nervous system
- Kidney damage
- Behavior and learning problems, such as hyperactivity
- Slowed growth
- Nerve damage
- Hearing problems
- Bone marrow problems
Even children who appear to be healthy may experience some of these health problems because of lead poisoning.
In adults, lead exposure can cause:
- Fertility problems in both men and women
- Hearing and vision loss
- High blood pressure
- Kidney damage
- Nerve disorders
- Memory and concentration problems
- Muscle and joint pain
How Can I Tell If I Have Lead Paint in My House?
Not all houses built before 1978 have lead-based paint, but the older your house is, the greater the likelihood is that it contains lead paint somewhere inside or out.
Yet, even if it does, if the paint is in good condition -- there's no chipping or peeling and no sign that the surface has been broken -- the paint is not a health hazard. But if you're planning a renovation, you'll want to know if your paint contains lead so you can take precautions to avoid exposure.
You'll also want to determine if there is lead-based paint in your house if you intend to sell or rent it. As the seller or landlord, you have a legal obligation to provide potential buyers or renters any information you have about the lead-based paint or lead-based paint hazards in your home.
The only way you'll be able to know whether there is lead paint in your home is with an inspection.
What's Involved in an Inspection for Lead Paint?
There are three testing methods used to determine whether lead paint is present in your home. Which one you have done depends on your reason for testing.
Lead-based paint inspection
An inspection identifies whether there is lead-based paint on any surface inside or outside your home. It's particularly useful if you’re planning a renovation, are going to paint, or are having paint removed.
An inspector will inventory all painted surfaces, including those covered by wall paper, both inside and outside the house. Samples are then tested, either on site with a portable X-ray fluorescence (XRF), or collected and sent to a laboratory recognized by the EPA's National Lead Laboratory Accreditation Program. The XRF measures lead in the paint without damaging it, and provides a fast method for classifying painted surfaces as either positive (lead) or negative (no lead). But if the results aren't conclusive, samples of one- to four-square inches of paint are removed and sent for lab analysis.
The report that follows the inspection will identify which surfaces have lead-based paint. The report does not indicate the condition of the paint or whether it poses a health risk.
A risk assessment locates deteriorating paint in your home and evaluates the extent and cause of the deterioration. Then the deteriorated paint is tested, as well as paint on surfaces where it looks like a child has been biting, mouthing, or licking. Painted surfaces in good condition are not tested. A risk assessment also tests household dust as well as soil in outside play areas and around the foundation. Dust samples are usually collected from floors and windows by using a wet wipe, then sent with the paint samples for lab analysis.
A risk assessment report will tell you where lead hazards exist in your house and indicate ways to correct them. Because not all surfaces are tested, a negative report doesn’t necessarily mean there's no lead-based paint in the house. Some homeowners choose to have a paint inspection and a risk assessment.
A hazard screen is similar to a risk assessment, but not as extensive. It's usually done for homes with a lower risk of lead hazard. An assessor inspects areas of deterioration and collects two samples of dust, one from floors and one from windows. Soil samples are usually not collected unless there's evidence of paint chips in the soil. A hazard screen identifies the probability of there being a risk present. If there is a probability, the report will recommend a risk assessment.
Can I Inspect My House Myself?
The EPA strongly recommends that lead tests be done by either a certified lead inspector or a certified lead risk assessor.
There are home lead test kits available, however. They use chemicals that change color to indicate the presence of lead. They’re less expensive than a full inspection or assessment, their accuracy is questionable, and they don’t provide the detail that an inspection or a risk assessment gives.
You may also collect your own paint samples and send them to a lab for analysis. However, the samples you collect may not be as complete as the samples a certified professional would gather.
What Can I Do If I Have Lead Paint in the House?
If tests show lead paint inside or outside your home, there are temporary measures you can take to reduce or control the hazard.
- Immediately clean up any paint chips you find.
- Keep play areas clean.
- Don't let children chew on painted surfaces.
- Clean dust off of window sills and other surfaces on a regular basis, using a sponge, mop, or paper towels with warm water. Be sure to thoroughly rinse mop heads and sponges after cleaning.
- Remove your shoes when you enter your home so you don’t track in lead from the soil.
- If you rent, tell the landlord about the results of the test and the fact that there is peeling or chipping paint.
It’s also important to make sure that your children eat healthy, well-balanced meals. According to the EPA, children with good diets absorb less lead.
Repairing damaged painted surfaces and planting grass in places where the soil is bare will also reduce the hazard of lead paint, but only for a short while. And painting over damaged surfaces with regular paint is not enough to permanently keep the lead away from your family.
To completely remove lead paint hazards and protect your family's health, you need to hire a certified lead abatement contractor. Permanently removing lead's hazards then requires either removing the paint or sealing or enclosing it with special materials. A certified contractor will take precautions to keep the dust and lead paint chips contained until all surfaces can be cleaned and the lead removed. You can contact the National Lead Information Center at 1-800-424-LEAD for help in locating certified lead professionals.