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Don't Just Sit There Like A Slug...
Get The Lead Out!
Lead... the one of the heaviest metals now has
even heavier regulation on many home repair projects!
On April 22, 2010, new federal rules were implemented regarding
how contractors working on homes built before 1978 deal with the lead-containing
paints. As you may or may not know, 1978 was the year that lead use was
severely curtailed in paints and many other consumer products. So if your
home was built prior to 1978, there is a good chance that there are layers of
lead paint in the paint inside and outside your home. (There are lead testing
kits widely available at hardware and home stores.)
The rule is deceptively simple... but quite costly!
"EPA requires that firms performing
renovation, repair, and painting projects that disturb lead-based paint
pre-1978 homes, child care facilities and schools be certified by EPA and that
certified renovators who are trained by EPA-approved training providers
to follow lead-safe work practices."
Though there was initially some fear on the part of contractors that becoming
a "certified renovator" would be a difficult process, but it has turned
out to no be as bad as expected. Certification requires an 8-hour course
by an EPA accredited trainer, and there are lots of trainers to choose from.
But it's not free...
At the time of this writing,
certification of a renovation/painting firm can cost up to $550.00 plus training
costs for all its employees. But if the company performs work in more than
one state, there is an additional fee of $35.00 per state.
As if that wasn't costly enough, firms must be recertified every 5 years for
renovations and 3 years for combination or painting-only contractors.
So if you find your friendly painter has either gone out of business or has
severely raised his prices, you know why! Remember... a single
painter and a huge painting firm pay the same hefty initial fee!!
But we're here to talk about lead... and it's a really bad boy!
The saga of lead, lead poisoning and
If we only knew then what we know now. One thing is
certain... we will never know for sure how severe the damage to homo sapiens has
been. But the facts are clear... there is no silver lining to lead
Lead, one of the heaviest common metals next to gold, is
absorbed into the body easily even though the body has no biological need for
it. Stepping outside for a breath of air will not clear lead from the
body... only time and, in extreme cases, invasive medical intervention can rid
your body of this poison. Like it or not, lead deposited in your bones can
remain in place for decades!
The history of lead... when not in Rome,
don't do as the Roman's did!
Known to the Romans as "plumbum", lead was one
of the earliest non-precious minerals to be extensively mined by man.
Ancient Rome's fabled water supply was constructed from 60 miles of handmade
lead water pipes, leading to the homes of the more well-to-do (who paid... no
free ride in Rome... by the size of the pipes leading to their homes) and to
public water supplies. The not-so-wealthy used the pay-per-visit (or
maybe pay-per-view) public baths, lined with sheets of lead. These
baths could hold from 300 to 1500 people. Talk about a lack of
privacy! The craftsmen who formed the pipe and installed this
marvelous system were known as plumbium, or "workers in lead"...
from which we derive the English word "plumber". Pass the soap,
When it comes to the earliest recorded lead pollution, all roads
do lead to Rome! Carthagenian mines in Spain, eventually taken over by the
Romans, produced large amounts of both silver and lead. The smelting
process, which combines the lead-laden ore with other materials in a furnace to
separate the metal, spewed leaded smoke to the extent that is detectable in
glacial ice in Greenland today... 2000 years later! Though their
knowledge of global pollution was abysmal, the Romans were well aware of the
health dangers of lead... at least for their workers. Though they were
unable to understand the biology of lead poisoning, they instituted rules in the
lead mines regarding worker safety, not for any loftier motive than this simple
truth... a dead worker doesn't produce any work!
Speculation abounds that the fall of the Roman Empire may have
been due to widespread lead poisoning. Personally, I think it was from
watching too much daytime TV! Well, you know what they say about
Enter the modern era... show me the lead!
In the 1920's, automotive scientists struggled with ways to
improve the operation of the horseless carriage. In collaboration, General
Motors and Standard Oil introduced a new gasoline additive to smooth out and
quiet the internal combustion engine... tetraethyl lead. This additive
reduced a characteristic of engines called "knocking"... a banging,
pinging sound caused by gasoline igniting at the wrong time within the engine's
combustion chamber. Whatever that is...
Though the evidence of lead poisoning was mounting for over 50
years, it took until the early 1980's for the Environmental Protection Agency
(EPA) to move to eliminate lead from gasoline, the single greatest source of
lead in the environment. Though the move was widely criticized as
unnecessary and inconvenient by auto owners (needing leaded fuel) and the
gasoline industry, the facts speak for themselves... decreases in the average
lead content of gas clearly parallel a decrease in average human blood lead
levels. Seldom is the result of a government action so unequivocal...
except in war perhaps.
Until the late 1970's, lead products were routinely added to
interior and exterior residential paints. And not frivolously... lead
pigments added vibrant color, improved durability, and decreased oil paint
drying time. Though we usually think of our walls, trim and siding as the
primary culprits, when it comes to children, we must consider their little
world, too. Items such as children-sized furniture, wooden toys, playpens,
cribs and swingsets were all painted with lead-based products. In 1978,
the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) banned the use of lead-based
paints in all housing.
Though there was an initial push for a no-lead policy in public
buildings (following the ban on lead in most paints), it was found that the cure
was at times worse than the disease. As with one of its sisters, asbestos,
lead is usually better left alone... covered, protected, and put in a corner
with a good book. If it wouldn't behave and keep its distance from us...
via lead water pipes, water fountains, and the like... then replacement was the
only solution. Once the difficulty and excessive costs of trying to make
the world lead-free were understood, a more reasoned policy of case-by-case lead
abatement became the status quo.
And the results of this 70 year experiment with lead?
Simply, the main sources of environmental lead today have been inherited from
the last generation... leaded paint, lead water pipes and solder and, of course,
lead in the soil from auto exhaust emissions and deteriorating exterior lead
paints. However, new sources of lead contamination in the home are few and
far between, since lead is no longer used in residential paint products or
fresh water plumbing systems. There have been a few scares... for example
vinyl blinds imported from certain countries were found to leach lead as they
dried out from the sun (see link at end of article for more information).
In addition, there are still certain types of dinner plates being
manufactured... once again, imported into the US... with dangerously high lead
content in the glazing.
There are still valuable uses for lead that have not been
regulated out of existence. Lead is still in widespread use in automobile
batteries, solder for electrical work, sheaths on certain types of electrical
cable, concrete anchors for fastening screws or bolts to concrete (also known as
lead anchors), fishing sinkers, gun ammunition, and in rigorous commercial
painting applications such as bridges where extreme durability against the
elements is not just desired... it is required. The memorabilia we cherish
was painted with lead paint, the old plates and mugs we still use are leaching
lead into our wine and guacamole dips, the lead-based solder used to keep your
pipes from turning your basement into an indoor pool is tainting your water and
Grandma's beautiful china bowl you use to feed Ramona, the poodle, is killing
off her few remaining brain cells. Can it get any worse?
Like a stealthy enemy, it attacks the
most defenseless of us without mercy...
According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), nearly a
million school-aged children have blood lead levels high enough to be a health
risk. Some estimates claim up to 20% of children under 6 years old have
unacceptably high blood lead levels. The problem is worst among the poor
who tend to live in under-maintained older buildings. To compound
the problem, the higher automobile traffic levels in these same inner cities has
deposited tons of lead emissions over the 50+ years when leaded gasoline was
available. And this lead still exists in the soil of schools, playgrounds
and backyards throughout the country.
Though there are some state and local lead testing
programs, the Federal Government requires lead testing only for children
on Medicaid. And apparently the results are dismal. According to the
Alliance to End Childhood
Lead Poisoning, only 19% of the children required to be tested are
actually being tested... your tax dollars at work!
Nutritional deficiencies also play into this drama. It is known
that the body can absorb more lead when mineral deficiencies in calcium,
magnesium and iron exist. Babies and young children are most susceptible to lead
poisoning because of the nutritional demands of their rapid growth, plus their
propensity for sticking just about anything in their little mouths! There
is a childhood disorder called "pica", in which a child will mouth
and/or swallow non-food items. Lead has a sweet flavor, which may explain
why some children will eat paint chips or chew on lead painted toys, cribs,
Lead can be transferred from an otherwise healthy pregnant woman
to her baby... with the same potential for disastrous neurological
effects. Because of the demands of the baby on the mother, lead stored in
the mother's bones can be released with calcium and circulate to the baby's
bloodstream through the umbilical cord. The rapidly developing baby's
nervous system is most vulnerable to the poisonous effects of lead.
This is all the more reason for mothers-to-be to take care of their increased
Adults are not exempt from lead poisoning though exposure must
be higher before symptoms appear. Most historical records of lead
poisoning have been concerning lead miners and others in the lead
industry. Symptoms can range from none at all to headaches, hearing and
speech problems, confusion, muscle weakness, hair loss, and other disorders of
the brain and nervous system that can mimic other neurologic diseases.
Now it's time to put this knowledge to
good use... at home
As a home handyman, you have the heavy
burden of protecting your family and yourself from your actions. To
paraphrase a well known medical oath... "Handyman, do no harm!"
Just as you would not repair your home's electrical system if you thought you
would place your family in danger of severe shock or death, you should be
equally careful to not expose your family to the hidden dangers of lead dust
that some renovation projects can produce.
I do not recommend or encourage
anyone except a trained, experienced professional to perform lead
abatement. Consider that a disclaimer!
If you have a significant lead problem in
your home or are planning a major renovation project, you should not attempt to
do the work yourself. Lead is considered a hazardous substance and each
state and town has their own rules for disposal. Lead abatement may be a
licensed profession in your area. If so you may be violating the law
if you proceed without a professional's guidance. Even dumping the lead
waste improperly or without the proper permits may be a violation subject to
fines or prison!
That said, I have no illusions that many
folks cannot afford to hire an expensive lead abatement contractor to do all the
work, especially for small jobs. So I am providing the information below
to help you judge whether you want to take the chance. As always, it is
totally your decision and your responsibility to protect your family, yourself
and to obey the law!!
Before you do anything else, stop
hyperventilating and test your home for lead... NOW!
If your home was built before 1978, you
should assume there is lead paint both inside and outside unless you know
otherwise. Testing for lead is vital! There is no reason to stick
your head in the sand... or elsewhere! Remember that having solidly
attached lead paint in your home is not a reason for alarm. Ignorance is
more of a reason for concern. You can diminish or even completely
eliminate the risk of lead in your home through proper maintenance and repair
Lead testing is simple. Virtually
all hardware stores and home stores carry lead testing swabs. By touching
these swabs to the suspicious surface while facing West and chanting
"There's no place like home... there's no place like home" you will
know in a matter of minutes if there is lead present. The drawback is that
these products cannot see through new paint to old paint. Testing in
chipped areas (or carefully removing a small amount of old paint) is essential
to get a true reading of your lead situation.
Know the hazards of living with lead in
Lead-based paints are the most common
indoor source of lead dust in older homes. Doors and windows are the
primary culprits in the generation of this lead dust since they are frequently
handled and often abraded by friction in normal use. As you might expect,
many standard paint preparation techniques are unacceptable when dealing with
lead-based paints. The EPA recommends caution when sanding, scraping, and
even using heat removal techniques (such as a torch or heat gun), as all of
these methods can release large quantities of airborne lead. In fact, the high
temperatures of both torches and heat guns can vaporize the lead and make it
even more toxic!
Perhaps the safest method of lead paint
removal is the use of chemical paint strippers. I use the word
"safest" guardedly, since paint strippers themselves carry lengthy
warning labels... with good reason. The homeowner must recognize the
dangers inherent in these chemicals and use the proper safety precautions.
The ability of these chemical strippers to remove multiple coats of paint with
very little physical effort makes them the first choice for restoring old
windows, doors and moldings.
An additional low-dust alternative for
small jobs is wet sanding. A special waterproof sandpaper is soaked in
water and used wet. The paint dust becomes a paste which can be
rinsed into a bucket of water. The sanding is followed with a TSP
rinse. This one-two approach will remove virtually all lead residue with
minimal dust. Of course, this method is not as suitable for large removal
jobs as chemical paint strippers... just for smoothing rough surfaces.
Protection for the worker is not to be
overlooked. Lead dust particles are very small. Though your body has
the ability to self-clean small quantities from your lungs... just as it does
every day with less dangerous substances...this "routine
maintenance" is not sufficient with lead dust. As
mentioned earlier, inhalation is the most dangerous form of lead ingestion.
Standard dust masks are not adequate for lead dust. Only HEPA
respirators can assure you of relative safety from lead dust.
"HEPA" is a 50 cent acronym for "high efficiency particulate
air" filter. You should also wear protective clothing,
including a hat, which can be left in the work area if, say, the phone rings (I
actually had a better example, but my editor blinked!). The less lead dust
that is allowed to leave the work area and enter the rest of the home, the
All efforts must be made to isolate the
work area from the rest of the home. Covering floors, walls, furniture,
etc. with heavy plastic tarps can make the final cleanup less laborious.
Tarps on floors keep lead dust from settling into cracks in floors or into the
carpeting, where it will be difficult or impossible to remove. Doorways
can be likewise tarped over. Heating and air conditioning ducts should be
sealed to prevent dust from entering and poisoning your entire heating system.
Cleaning up is no easier. Most
"shop vacs" or residential vacuum cleaners will not completely filter
out lead dust and will blow it throughout your home. The only approved
vacuums for lead dust collection are those incorporating a HEPA filter.
After the paint preparation is completed,
the residual dust should be washed from all surfaces using a detergent.
TSP, or trisodium phosphate, has become the cleaner of choice for lead dust
removal, though there are commercial products with additional additives
available for large scale lead abatement projects.
Don't remove the lead... encapsulate it!!
One thing that was quickly learned in the
heyday of lead abatement was that sometimes, removing the lead was not only
ridiculously expensive but unnecessary. The amount of lead dust raised
during the renovations was a greater source of pollution than if it had been
left alone! Sober heads again prevailed (it does happen now and again) and
the technique of encapsulation (or encasement) was born.
Encapsulation is simply covering the lead with a paint-like product to seal it
from prying hands and mouths... effectively rendering it harmless.
Of course, each renovation is different,
requiring a different balance of abatement and encapsulation. For example,
your 1950's home may have chipped windows that are shedding paint like a German
Shepherd in springtime. Painted windows are the primary source of lead
dust in many homes because of the stresses on the paint, such as friction and
frequent human contact. One solution could be to remove the windows and
replace them with modern wood or vinyl clad windows. The windows could
also be stripped with a chemical stripper and repainted with lead-free
If the same home's walls are solid, they
can be coated with a paint product designed to seal in the lead. An
alternative would be to install 1/4-1/2" wallboard over them, sealing in
the lead and giving the homeowner a safe, fresh wall surface.
Technologies Inc. offers a product designed to be used by the homeowner or
professional painter, called Child Guard. It is a
water-based product that can be used as a primer or a finish coat, designed to
permanently seal lead-painted surfaces in two coats. Their Website is at http://www.fiberlock.com.
Know when to call in the professionals...
and which one to hire!
As Kenny Rogers sang in his hit song The
Gambler, "You've got to know when to hold 'em, know when to fold
'em, know when to walk away, know when to run..." Though the
homeowner can handle minor lead abatement and encapsulation procedures with
safety, there is a time for professional help. When the fine line is
crossed from home repair to renovation, the choice of a contractor with
experience in lead abatement procedures is a vital part of your project.
Here are a few tips to help you to be sure that the person you
hire is qualified to do the work and, hopefully, will leave you with a little
money in your wallet:
- Find out how many years the contractor has been in
business. Don't be anyone's guinea pig... only use an experienced
contractor who knows the local laws and regulations. Remember that you
may be liable for their mistakes!
- Require that the contractor produces written documentation
that he has completed a state or federally-approved training program, if
required, and is properly registered with your state, also if required.
- Ask for references for previous clients to learn if they
were satisfied with the quality, neatness, and promptness of the work.
Get more than one reference, especially if that contractor has a large
- Get a thorough written description of the work to be
performed. This is vital for future reference if there are problems or
misunderstandings. This will give you a realistic way to compare
quotes from different contractors (see next tip).
- Get more than one quote. One contractor may
determine that encapsulating the lead paint is preferred, while another may
want to completely remove it! Remember... encapsulation is the method
of choice. Removal should only be done when encapsulation is illegal,
impractical or impossible (such as in many major league renovations).
Alliance to End Childhood Lead Poisoning is a resource rich
Web site. They are an advocacy group with two lofty goals... elimination
of all childhood lead poisoning and leaning on the Feds to enforce their own
rules regarding childhood lead screening. Tour their site at http://www.aeclp.org.
The Residential Lead Paint Disclosure Program,
also known as Title X, gave the EPA authority to develop
guidelines and regulations regarding the right of home buyers to know whether or
not the homes they are purchasing contain significant levels of lead. The
regulations went into effect in 2001, and you can view the text of the rules as
well as more information for homeowners, realtors and renters at
The National Lead Information Center, at http://www2.epa.gov/lead,
has over a hundred articles on lead-related issues for both the homeowner and
the professional. They can be ordered online, and are delivered by
your smiling mailman.
Oregon Department of Human Resources Lead Links Page, at
has some fine articles on a few lead-related topics brushed by in this
article... lead in imported vinyl blinds and lead in china and tableware... both
important topics to learn more about!
The Environmental Defense Fund has an article concerning the
phaseout of lead in gasoline, with a graph depicting the dramatic drop in lead
in human blood as related to lead in gasoline. The page is located at:
A final reference... offline
Lead from Carthaginian and Roman Spanish Mines Isotopically
Identified in Greenland Ice Dated from 600 B.C. to 300 A.D. by Kevin J.
R. Rosman, Warrick Chisholm, Sungmin Hong, Jean-Pierre Candelone, and Claude F.
Boutron. from Environmental Science and Technology, Volume 31,
Issue 12 November 26, 1997
(In a nutshell, the ancient Romans, through the smelting of lead in ancient
Spain, poisoned the earth. No... it wasn't the Americans this time.
How sweet it is! End of story!)
Return to Sisters of Doom Articles
Written by Jerry Alonzy
Jerry Alonzy, a.k.a. the Natural Handyman, has been an active handyman for over 30 years with experience in most areas of home repair and renovation.
As a do-it-yourself author and web developer since 1995, he has been featured in USA Today, the Today Show and on radio shows, magazines, newspapers and websites. His material appears widely on the web, but primarily on his website... The Natural Handyman. You can also find him on Google+.