Where & How Is Lead Dust Created In An Old Home?

by Janelle Sorensen, Chief Communications Officer, Healthy Child Healthy World

Today, childhood lead poisoning is considered the most preventable environmental disease among young children, yet an estimated 250,000 U.S. children have elevated blood-lead levels. Since it’s Lead Poisoning Awareness Week, we’ve put together this brief blog answering some of the most recent questions Healthy Child has received about lead, tips from experts, and a video to help educate children. Enjoy & be safe!

Q&A with expert Gene Burch

Gene Burch is one of the nation’s most respected experts in lead paint- and indoor mold-inspection. With nearly 20 years in the field, his expertise remains in high demand. He is a founding Board Member of the National Association of Lead Inspectors (N.A.L.I.), a certified instructor in the United States EPA RRP rule for working with lead paint and in 2011, and founder of the Bust Lead Dust campaign which he created in response to a disturbing amount of misinformation he was hearing from clients and contractors about lead and lead poisoning. Bust Lead Dust is a public service campaign to educate consumers about the dangers of lead dust. For more information, please visit www.BustLeadDust.com.

Q. Where and how is lead dust created in an old home?

A. If your home was built before 1978, the year lead-based paint was banned, assume there is lead in any painted surface. The main sources of lead dust are found in deteriorated paint around windows and doors, and on stairs, railings, banisters, porches and fences. If the paint layers are sanded or chipped, lead dust will result. Unfortunately, lead dust can be invisible. A simple sanding job can unleash the dangerous dust in your home. If you open the windows while sanding, or sand your home’s outdoor siding, lead dust will travel through the air, coating the soil on your property as well as your neighbor’s. Outdoors, lead dust is found in soil, sandboxes, sidewalks, porch floors, and on swing sets, outdoor toys, and even athletic fields. Easily tracked indoors, lead dust coats floors and blankets, toys and hands, and eventually can wind up in a child’s mouth.

Q. I have an antique piece of furniture that I think was stained with lead-based paint. It does not chip and is in good condition. I cannot put a stain over it otherwise it loses its value. Can I use it in my house, or should I get rid of it?

A. I am not sure if your furniture was stained or painted. Although lead may not be in the stain, if it has a clear coat (varnish), lead may be present in the varnish. Some of the older varnish (and commercial boat varnish) had lead in it. Best to test and be sure. But if your furniture was painted, you can expect that lead was an ingredient, as it was in all paint manufactured before 1978. If the piece was painted, as long as the paint is not chipping or flaking – and if you will never sand that piece of furniture – we don’t see a problem. If lead-based paint is kept intact and surfaces are kept clean, there is no cause for concern.

Q. When I nail picture hooks into the walls of my old home, how should it be handled? (I’m assuming that lead-based paint exists underneath the non-lead paint.)

A. You do need to be careful! To keep dust from becoming airborne, mist the surface well with water before hammering the nail into the wall. Removing nails from walls painted with lead-paint will generate lead dust, so it’s best to consult a professional first to test for lead-based paint. If there is, any type of remodeling that disturbs lead paint is best left to a professional. Whatever projects you are tackling, it’s best to heed the Centers for Disease Control’s warning: A speck of lead dust, as small as a grain of sand, is enough to poison a child.

Q. If the paint is chipped somewhere, can I simply put a layer of no-VOC paint over the chipped part?

A. Simply painting over old lead-based paint will not stop the paint from chipping. In fact, the friction generated by painting over chipped lead-based paint could cause lead dust particles to fly into the air. To do the job correctly, the paint needs to be sanded until it is smooth, then primed and painted. This work should be done by a painter who is EPA-certified in the Renovation Repair & Painting rule.

Here are more easy tips! Our friends at Lead Free Kids; a joint effort of the Ad Council, the Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, and the Coalition to End Childhood Lead Poisoning; shared these additional recommendations to help prevent lead poisoning:

  • Get Tested: If you have a child under age 6 and live in a home built before 1978, ask your child’s pediatrician for a lead test. A simple blood test can determine whether your child has been exposed and your doctor can refer you to additional resources.
  • Windows and Doors: Toxic dust from lead-based paint can be created and build up where painted surfaces rub together, like when you open and close windows and doors, so check your doors and windows inside and out. Wipe away any dust or paint chips with wet paper towels and throw them away immediately.
  • Baseboards and Walls: Check baseboards and walls for peeling, cracking or chipped paint. Be careful of generating dust when hammering, sanding, or doing other work on walls that may have lead-based paint.
  • Water Lines and Plumbing: Find out from a certified plumber or your utility company if your home has lead service lines. These pipes can be a source of lead in your tap water. Remember, you cannot see, smell or taste lead, and boiling your water can increase its lead concentration in many cases.

Watch! Check out this cute (but informative) video from Sesame Street. Watch it with your kids and please share it with other parents and caregivers you know to help protect more children from lead exposure.

Learn more using the following awesome resources:

The opinions expressed here are solely those of the author and not necessarily those of Healthy Child Healthy World.

Photo courtesy Let Ideas Compete / CC BY 2.0