DIY Lead Paint Test Kits Explained: Do They Really Work?

by | Aug 27, 2020 | Lead | 0 comments

Everyone knows that exposure to lead is bad for you. It can cause a range of health issues and is especially damaging to young children. Yet it’s something many of us come into contact with every day. If your home was built before 1978, there’s a good chance it has lead-based paint.

This isn’t necessarily a problem if the paint is still in good condition. But once it starts to crack, chip, flake, or peel – or if it gets damp – it can become a health hazard and needs to be addressed as quickly as possible.

The first step is to test the paint for lead content. But should you buy a DIY kit or do you need to have it professionally tested?

When To Test for Lead

Lead is a highly toxic metal that, when absorbed into the body, can cause a variety of serious health issues, including brain damage, kidney damage, heart disease, anemia, high blood pressure, and fertility issues. In extreme cases, lead poisoning can even lead to death.

For decades, lead was used in things like paint, gasoline, batteries, ammunition, and water pipes. It was even used to manufacture toys, jewelry, and cosmetics. Today, it’s heavily regulated, but lead-based paint is still present in many homes and buildings erected before 1978 when it was federally banned.

If you live in an older home or own an older building, it’s important to know how to identify lead paint. Make sure to keep a close eye on painted surfaces (walls, ceilings, doors, window frames, siding, banisters, etc.). At the first sign of flaking, chipping, cracking, or crumbling, you need to have the paint tested for lead. Similarly, if you’re thinking of remodeling or renovating your home or building, you’ll want to have it tested for lead content to avoid creating lead dust that could poison you and your family, workers, or tenants.

DIY Lead Test Kits vs Lab Analysis

While professional lead testing is the safest and most accurate way to test for lead, it’s not the only option out there. DIY test kits are an affordable alternative that allows homeowners, business owners, and contractors to test for lead themselves, however, there are some notable differences in quality.

How do DIY lead test kits work?

DIY lead paint test kits rely on one of two reagents (sodium rhodizonate or sodium sulfide) to get results. The tests are performed by scraping or peeling the paint with a utility or putty knife before swabbing the area with the reagent. To get accurate results, you’ll want to make sure to expose all layers of the paint. Rhodizonate tests will turn red or pink if lead is present, while sulfide tests will turn black. For the most reliable results, it’s a good idea to get one of each type of test.

How accurate are lead test kits?

Not all DIY lead tests are created equal. To get the most accurate results possible, you’ll want to choose an EPA-recognized test. To receive this designation, a test must produce an accurate result 95 percent of the time when performed correctly. If you want to reduce the risks associated with a false positive or negative, consider testing the same area more than once.

How much do lead test kits cost?

You can get a 2-pack of most popular at-home test kits for around $10 to $12. Kits are available at most hardware stores or home improvement centers, both in-store and online. Laboratory testing ranges from $20 to $95 per sample but can be well worth it when considering the risks described above.

Risks of False Negatives

Lab analysis by Flame Atomic Absorption Spectroscopy (FAAS) yields a far more accurate result than a DIY test kit, even a kit that claims to detect lead at low levels. How do we know this? At JSE, side-by-side comparisons of EPA-approved DIY test kits v. Flame AAS were performed. It was found that paints with concentrations below 5,000 parts per million (0.05%) lead, yielded negative DIY test kit results while the more robust FAAS method was able to detect lead. Therefore, test kits can create not only health risks but liability risks for employers regarding worker protection. The FAAS analysis was demonstrated to be a superior test method as a result of this comparison.

Problems with Unquantified Positives

Positive test kit results have the potential to create an additional liability risk for employers when it comes to providing adequate worker respiratory protection. Why? Positive test kit results cannot differentiate lower concentrations, for example, 5,000 parts per million (ppm) from higher concentrations, say 50,000 ppm. When the paint concentration is not quantified, employers can not confidently assess whether a half-face respirator will provide sufficient protection or if a respirator with a higher protection factor is needed.

What size paint chip is needed for lab analysis?

Sample size does matter for Flame AAS. Four square inches, sampled through all the layers, down to the substrate, is best. For more information regarding sampling please visit: How to Take a Lead Sample.

When Professional Testing Is Necessary

A lot of homeowners, business owners, and contractors are hesitant to pay the additional cost associated with professional testing. For the most accurate and reliable results, however, lab testing is always the best option, particularly if you plan to paint over the lead paint or remodel your home.

While it’s not a bad idea to begin with an inexpensive DIY test, if you’re thinking of renovating, demolishing, or otherwise disturbing any paint in an older home or building, it’s a good idea to have the paint professionally tested. When it comes to the health of your family, workers, or tenants, it’s better to be safe than sorry.

Choosing a Laboratory

When entrusting your sample to a lab, choose one that participates in a nationally recognized quality program, such as the American Industrial Hygiene Association’s Environmental Laboratory Proficiency Analytical Testing Program (AIHA ELPAT) program or is accredited by an EPA-recognized agency, depending upon your needs. JSE Labs successfully participates in the AIHA ELPAT program and in addition, has completed the ELLAP and as of Dec. 2021 holds an accreditation for analysis of paint chips (AIHA: 163062). For a list of labs that have completed the ELLAP, please click here.

Protect yourself and the people you care about. Get professional results you can trust.

DIY test kits are an option, but if you’re looking for the most accurate results, you should always turn to professional lab testing. At JSE Labs, we make the process as smooth, efficient, and hassle-free as possible. Our experts can deliver same-day testing, results, and analysis.

JSE is a successful participant in the nationally recognized AIHA ELPAT testing program, so you can rest assured your sample will be expertly handled and your results will be accurate and reliable.

Our proven methods can detect even very small amounts of lead. Collect and mail in your own sample or drop it off at our Milwaukie, OR location.

Don’t risk your family’s health. Contact us today to have your home professionally tested for lead.

Lisa Jones-Stohosky

Lisa Jones-Stohosky

Lisa started in the industrial hygiene and environmental industry in 1992 as an asbestos microscopist and began performing building inspections for asbestos, lead paint, and other hazards in 1994.

“This career has been an amazing experience, traveling for work to perform inspections both locally and abroad to locations such as Hawaii and Germany. My real love however is being in the laboratory and assisting our wonderful clients.”

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