From the early 19th century through to the 1940’s almost all household paints contained lead pigments. Lead content, when the paint is dry could be as high as 65%. Many manufacturers began to phase out their use of lead in the 1950’s but lead based additives were not banned until the late 70’s.
What this means is that a house built before 1978 may or may not contain lead paint but a house built before 1950 almost certainly does.
In its cured form paint containing lead does not pose a serious problem. However, dust from sanding or fumes from a torch used to remove paint can result in dangerous levels of lead being absorbed into the bloodstream. Lead poisoning can affect all ages, but children are at most risk.
In general, lead based paints were used on exterior surfaces and interior trim or glossy wall surfaces such as kitchens and bathrooms. The only way to know for sure is to test. Inexpensive test kits are available from hardware stores or samples can be sent to a laboratory for testing. Be sure to cut through layers of paint to get to the underlying surfaces when taking samples.
It is important to remember that lead dust is the problem and good maintenance is the key to eliminating or controlling the spread of the dust. Cracking, peeling paint surfaces or friction surfaces such as sticking windows or doors can grind the paint into dust during daily use. Because it’s heavy, lead dust doesn’t travel very far. Most of the dust produced by a troublesome double hung window will likely settle on the sill or nearby on the floor. Using soapy water and a wet cloth can quickly and effectively wipe this away. Lead dust particles are very small, so it is important to be aware that they can pass through the filter of a conventional vacuum cleaner. This means you could be distributing the dust throughout the home. To avoid contaminating an entire room, a vacuum with a HEPA filter should be used.
Remodelling an area containing lead paint probably poses the greatest health risk as it is almost impossible not to generate dust during deconstruction. Whether you are using a contractor, or doing it yourself, be sure to plan the steps that are required to contain the dust. Areas should be sealed with 6 mil polyethylene, heat registers and returns should be sealed. All joints should be taped. In some cases surfaces can be wet down. Dust masks are not suitable; a half face respirator with HEPA filter is needed. Many US States now require contractors to be certified in dealing with renovations involving lead paint. Keep in mind that working on the exterior of the home still requires lead dust containment and suitable safety equipment such as coveralls, masks and HEPA vacuums.
In general, a clean well maintained home containing lead paint should not present a health risk providing safety guidelines are followed.
For additional information visit
Health Canada website: http://www.hc-sc.gc.ca/hl-vs/iyh-vsv/prod/paint-peinture-eng.php
EPA website: http://www.epa.gov/lead/