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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
 in pre-1978 homes, child care facilities and schools be certified by EPA and that they use
 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 madness!

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 exposure.

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, please.

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 opinions...

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, etc.

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 nutritional requirements!

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 activities.

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 your home...

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 better.

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 paint. 

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.

Fiberlock 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

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:

Useful links

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

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, 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.

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!)

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