Above: While red is the dominant colour here, flowers feature prominently in an eclectic mix of furniture and furnishings in an art lover’s living room. Contrasting white roses and lilies are arranged in an Art Nouveau vase: red roses are elements of a 19th-century Berliner wool tapestry hung on the wall. The chrome junk-shop uplighter is probably an industrial lamp dating from the 1940’s.
The Dangers of Lead and VOCs in Paint
Painting is a key activity when it comes to renovating and home improvements. In fact it is, more often than not, one of the projects that top the list of to-dos. After all a bright new coat of paint is the easiest, quickest and most satisfying way to make over a room. But not all paint is created equal, and some types of paint can be harmful both to you and to the environment.
You need to take this very seriously when it comes to painting your home.
If you’ve ever felt dizzy while painting a room in your home, chances are you were using a paint that contained some type of volatile organic compounds (VOC). Lead paint has been banned for many years, so it’s unlikely to have been this additive that affected you.
But right now this isn’t the issue. What you need to be aware of is that it isn’t only new paint that can be harmful. Surfaces that were painted with lead-based paint many years ago can also make you sick, especially when it chips or flakes off the surface.
Lead-based paint was banned from use in American homes by the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) in 1978, but according to the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), some 38-million homes in the US still contain some lead-based paint surfaces. About two thirds of the houses that were built prior to 1960 contain lead-based paint. That is a shocking statistic.
So if you are about to start remodeling an older home, here’s what you need to know about lead paint.
Dust and Debris from Old Lead Paint is a Health Hazard
This is an established fact. It is also the very reason lead as an ingredient in paint was banned in the US, and in most other countries throughout the world. Since then, various standards and regulations have been developed that enable us to:
- identify dangerous levels of lead in paint, dust, and in the soil,
- are able to deal with to deal with any lead content in painted surfaces, dust or in the soil in an approved manner,
- protect people (especially children under six years of age) from the harmful effects of lead,
- insist on real estate disclosure so that when we buy our homes we know whether or not we are (or are likely to be) taking on a lead paint hazard.
According to the EPA, health problems caused by exposure to lead are horrendous, and can lead to “profound developmental and neurological impairment in children”. The agency warns that lead poisoning is linked to juvenile delinquency and violent behavior, learning disabilities and inadequate academic performance, as well as mental retardation, and even hearing loss.
The CPSC concurs with the EPA, stating that, “Lead poisoning in children is associated with behavioral problems, learning disabilities, and growth retardation.”
EPA statistics published in their Lead Fact Sheet reveal that close to a million children in the USA today have “dangerously elevated levels of lead in their blood”.
Regulations and Standards Regarding Contractors Working with Anything that Contains Lead
In April 2010, the EPA introduced new regulations that made it illegal for uncertified people in the USA to remove or disturb lead-based painted surfaces larger that 6 square feet indoors and 20 square feet in the yards and gardens of houses and child-occupied facilities that had been built prior to 1978 when lead-based paint was originally banned.
Professional renovators, painters, HVAC repairmen, plumbers and electricians are all expected to be tested, and contracting businesses must apply for official EPA certification. For safety reasons, only their trained and tested personnel are allowed to do the relevant work.
While the primary purpose of the regulations is to protect children from lead poisoning, trained contractors are, according to a flyer that is circulated by the Environmental Information Association (EIA), obliged to “follow specific work practices, such as containment, dust minimization and cleanup”. For example, they are not permitted to use power tools or an open-flame method when it comes to removing old lead-based paint, unless there is approved exhaust control. When it comes to clean-up, they have to follow a “cleaning verification procedure” or have the area tested using dust wipes after the work has been completed.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has developed even more stringent standards for workers. Aimed mainly at those working in industry, it specifies, amongst other things, the equipment and safety clothing that should be used when working with anything that contains lead. Paint is, of course, just one product that contained this harmfully toxic ingredient.
Removing Old Lead Paint
It is absolutely essential to take adequate precautions when removing old paint.
First and foremost you need to establish whether the old paint is lead-based. If you don’t know, and can’t find out, and the house was built prior to the banning of lead-based paint, then you should take these precautions as a matter of course.
When you work, follow these three simple EPA rules:
- Contain the work area.
- Minimize dust to the best of your ability.
- Clean up thoroughly when you have finished working (even if the job is not complete).
When you scrape the old paint off, wear a mask and gloves so that you don’t inhale any potentially toxic dust or come into contact with it and risk it being absorbed through your skin.
And always remember that, as the EPA warns: “Renovation activities that disturb lead-based paint can create health hazards.”
Rather be safe than sorry, and learn how to do things the correct way before you start.