Dealing with Lead Paint

In talking about scraping paint off woodwork, especially woodwork on a 130-year-old house, it is important to keep in mind the presence of lead in a lot of old paint. I think this is something that comes and goes in our awareness, and it's definitely something that you can get complacent about after a few years of scraping paint and knocking down the occasional wall.

When we first bought the house, we took a lead-safe renovation class offered by the county, and picked up our own lead-handling kit from a local paint shop. Most of the classes and information focus on keeping lead and lead dust away from children, but adults are at risk, too, especially those with high blood pressure. Check out this list of symptoms and tell me that doesn't sound kind of scary.

Fortunately, lead is not that hard to handle safely. The first thing is that it is pretty heavy. You know, like lead. So unlike asbestos, it does not want to stay airborne. And it's not radioactive, either: you can safely wipe it up with a damp sponge and not suffer any adverse side effects.

The first thing is to find out if you have lead. If your house was painted at all before 1970, it's likely that you do, but not a certainty. Lead surveys are done all the time in places with old houses, and they may be worth it to save you some hassle. You can get little lead test kits at the hardware store here, but apparently the accuracy is kind of iffy.

I generally assume there's one layer of lead under there unless I start scraping and it's all modern latex paint. This article from Old House Web talks a bit about where you might find lead in different paints around your house (basically, it could be anywhere). In our house there are three or four paint colours that have lead in them most obviously: a pale yellow, a pale green, and a grey that is actually battleship paint and is off the charts for lead content. Where we find the battleship paint the wood is unsalvageable. The yellow and green a little less so, unless they're over another layer of non-lead paint or finish (in the Accordion Room, we found a layer of the yellow over an old clear finish on the windowsill). Lead's not great stuff to put in your house, but it sure makes the paint stick like nothing else.

So with that in mind, there are some basic principles for handling lead in a renovation:
Easy, huh? Here are some precautions we take to handle lead (mostly) safely:

You see me mention lead-dissolving detergent up there quite a bit, but one word of caution: that stuff is not going to rescue you. You can't just paint it on and make the lead go away. It's really for cleaning up you, your clothes and shoes, and the work site to get rid of the remains of the lead dust after the work is done. In other words, it's a tool, not a superweapon. You have to be smart about making messes with lead as well.

For more information about lead handling, check out the piles of material available from the government, such as the US EPA's guidelines for renovations with lead, and the CPSC's notice about lead safety. If your county has a lead-safe renovation class, I recommend taking it even if you think it's going to be a bit elementary.

Be safe out there.

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posted by ayse on 01/31/08