Lead paint is present in millions of older homes throughout the United States, and it can pose serious health risks as it deteriorates over time or if it’s disturbed during a renovation. If you think you might have lead paint somewhere in your home, you need to know how to identify it.
But what does lead paint look like? How do you know if you have it in your home and where and what to look for? Keep reading to learn what lead paint looks like and how to deal with it once it’s found.
What Is Lead Paint?
“Lead paint” and “lead-based paint” are common terms used to describe any household paint that contains lead. Prior to the 1980s, lead was commonly added to paints to accelerate the drying process, maintain durability, and add moisture resistance. It was a cheap, effective way to manufacture paint.
In the United States, lead was banned from inclusion in household paints in 1978 due to the serious health risks associated with its use. Non-leaded pigments, anti-corrosive agents, and driers are now widely available and frequently used by paint manufacturers, so you’re not likely to find lead-based paint on the shelf of your local hardware or paint store.
What Are the Health Risks of Lead Paint?
There’s a good reason that lead-based paint was banned in the United States. Lead is a toxic metal, and if you have it in your home, it’s important to take steps to ensure you limit the health risks to you and your family.
Children are at increased risk for lead poisoning, through ingestion from several sources. They have a tendency to chew on lead-painted surfaces. These may include door edges, window sills, built-in shelving, and even some toys. Lead paint chips and dust can coat their sticky fingers as they play on the ground and subsequently put those fingers in their mouths. Both children and adults are most at risk when lead paint peels, cracks, chips, or deteriorates over time and produces lead dust.
When lead dust particles are inhaled, they can lead to serious and sometimes fatal health problems. Symptoms include the following:
- High blood pressure
- Developmental problems in children
- Nausea and abdominal pain
- Joint and muscle pain
- Memory and focus problems
- Mood disorders
- Fertility problems in both men and women
Do You Have Lead Paint In Your Home?
Lead-based household paint was so widely used prior to the 1978 federal ban that if your house was built before that year, it’s not just possible, but likely that you have some lead paint somewhere in your home. In fact, the CDC estimates that approximately 24 million homes in the United States currently contain serious lead-based paint hazards.
There are a few ways to determine whether your home contains lead paint:
- Do some research into the age, source, and condition of any paint in your home.
- Use a DIY lead paint test kit.
- Get a professional lead test and analysis from an accredited lab.
Signs of Lead Paint
Unfortunately, there’s no way to simply look at paint and know definitively whether or not it contains lead. Like with most household issues, you’ll have to dig a little deeper and actually get it tested to be sure.
That being said, there are some things you can look for that are common indicators of lead paint, and keeping an eye out for them can help you determine whether or not you should get it tested.
Chief among them is “alligatoring,” which happens when the paint starts to crack and wrinkle, creating a pattern that resembles reptilian scales. This is a sign that your paint may contain lead.
Another sign that you might be dealing with lead paint is if it produces a chalky residue when it rubs off.
If you notice either of these characteristics in any paint in or around your home, you should have it tested right away. Keep in mind that it may be harder to spot scaly or chalky paint if it has layers of new paint covering it, so it’s a good idea to look inside closets, around baseboards, behind appliances, and in other areas where people may not have bothered to paint over.
How Do You Remove Lead Paint Safely?
Once you’ve confirmed that you do in fact have lead paint in your home, it’s important to know how to safely and effectively remove it so it doesn’t continue to pose a risk to you and your loved ones.
If the paint is in relatively good condition (no peeling, chipping, cracking, or flaking), you may be able to paint over it rather than removing it. Painting over lead paint involves the use of encapsulants, which are special paints that prevent lead-containing paint from flaking or producing hazardous lead dust. Encapsulation creates a protective layer over the lead paint and prevents people from coming into direct contact with it.
Another option is to have the lead paint removed. It’s very important that this is done safely and according to EPA guidelines. Unless you know what you’re doing, it’s recommended that you hire a lead abatement contractor. Depending on the situation, they may use a variety of methods to remove the paint, from scraping with liquid paint removers to sanding with a high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filtered vacuum.
If you’re removing the paint as part of a larger renovation, you may also decide that the best option is to have the materials and surfaces the paint is covering (windows, doors, woodwork, drywall, etc.) replaced altogether. Whatever you decide to do, it’s important to take the necessary precautions and make sure it’s done safely and effectively.
Do you think you may have lead paint in your home?
If your home is one of the millions in the United States with surfaces coated in lead paint, it’s important that you’re able to identify it to protect your family’s health and safety should the paint begin to deteriorate, or should you decide to remodel your home. While there are some telltale signs that your paint may contain lead, the safest and surest way to identify it is by having a sample of your paint professionally tested.
JSE Labs provides reliable, quick results and can test your sample not just for lead, but also for asbestos and other toxic contaminants. Contact us with any questions, and collect and mail in your sample to one of our Portland-area locations.
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.”