Should we treat paint with detectable but legally acceptable levels of lead as lead paint when repainting?
April 28, 2010 9:31 PM   Subscribe

What precautions do we need to take in painting a house with paint that is mostly below (but some above) the legal definition of lead paint? Is the legal definition meaningful?

My wife and I bought a house last year. As the house was built in the 1920s, we expected it would have lead paint. We had an inspector come in and use x-ray fluorescence to detect the presence and levels of lead paint. The test showed about 15 surfaces out of about 115 tested met the legal definition of lead paint--1.0 or more mg/cm2 lead. The paint is generally well-maintained, but we want to repaint for aesthetic reasons. We will be doing this work ourselves.

The question is: How careful do we need to be about renovation procedures (ie, sanding) on surfaces that are below the legal threshold yet have measurable amounts of lead? Many of the rooms have a series of readings like 0.0, 0.3, 0.3, 0.1, 0.4, 0.7, 0.3. Will sanding these surfaces produce dangerous levels of lead dust? Very little sanding will be required to repaint. Would holding a vacuum up to the surface while sanding be sufficient? Do we need to buy a HEPA vac? Should we follow the new guidelines for contractors working with lead paint: cordoning off rooms with plastic, covering the floors and all furniture with plastic, no sanding or scraping without hooded tools, total airflow control, disposable clothing and respirators?

The underlying question is how to interpret these various levels. Is 1.0 a meaningful cut-off? Is 0.3 mg/cm2 just the normal amount of lead that is in the environment? Or does it mean there is lead paint but not as bad as some lead paint? How bad is "not as bad?" Is 0.3 mg/cm2 going to give us a one-third case of lead poisoning? Will 0.5 produce lead poisoning only in the left hemisphere of our bodies? 50% chance of lead poisoning?

It bears noting that we have a toddler living in the house with us. I would rather be safe than sorry, but not sure if this level of care is needed since these surfaces do technically fall under the legal limit...
posted by nequalsone to Home & Garden (11 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Lead + children is not to be trifled with. I would follow the new guidelines on the indicated surfaces.
posted by kjs3 at 9:58 PM on April 28, 2010

I'd tread very carefully here. Our downstairs neighbor has a baby that got lead poisoning due to the sanding and repainting if a house next door to us. After the baby tested positive, an inspector came out (the doctor's office is required to report incidents) and traced the lead to the neighbors. They were required to remediate and re-do the entire job. This second job they hired licensed professionals for and did it right. The baby cleared the lead eventually.
posted by otherwordlyglow at 10:30 PM on April 28, 2010

Thirding everyone about taking special care with this. Lead poisoning can have lifelong effects.

Children usually ingest lead directly, by putting dust-covered hands into their mouths or eating paint chips. There is also a reasonably strong history of children getting lead poisoning from playing in (i.e. eating) lead-containing soil immediately outside houses with lead paint (simple introduction here). So one lead-painted or lead-contaminated surface, if it's somewhere that a child has access to and ingests from either a) in a large amount (a week of pica behavior) or b) over several years (through inhalation and ingestion), is plenty to cause health problems. Here is an OSHA letter outlining their position, which is that unacceptable health risks can exist in the workplace even in areas that do not meet the 1mg/cm2 minimum for the results of x-ray fluorescence to be considered accurate. (They also outline some other tests that can be done). That's for adults in the workplace, mind you -- children are considerably more sensitive to lead than adults.

I'd say that your house certainly has or had at least one layer of lead paint, at least in some places; if it's well maintained, it could be sealed in by more recent paint on top of it. If the paint isn't peeling, flaking or dusty, that's ok -- but doing sanding work yourselves could certainly release that paint, and large amounts of airborne dust are a worst-case scenario, and much to be avoided.

What I'm trying to say long-windedly is: it's probably time for a professional.
posted by Valet at 12:33 AM on April 29, 2010

Live in a house with a fair bit of old paint and a three year old. I've always understood that the best advice is to:

1) If it's in decent condition just paint over it rather than strip it. With a little worth you can convince yourself that the marshmallow effect you get on doorframes with 170 years of paint is characterful and charming,

2) If you want to strip it, wet strip it with paintstripper, so you don't release dust into the air.

3) If you're going to do loads of lead paint related DIY, send the toddler to the grandparents for the duration.

More stuff here. and here
posted by rhymer at 2:16 AM on April 29, 2010

How little sanding is very little sanding?

I don't know that it's vital that you to follow all of the EPA guidelines exactly to the letter, but if you have a young child in the house, I' be real careful about anything that's going to create fine dust or leave paint chips. I'd at least invest the the HEPA vacuum you mentioned and a dust collecting sanding block (like drywallers use), close off the area I was working in and be aggressive about avoiding contamination of non-work areas during and cleanup afterward.

Rhymer's advice seems pretty solid to me.

Also, remember, while there is something about poisoning that really gets people's hysteria juices flowing in a way that dismemberment, bleeding to death and being set on fire do not (I assume that this is because you pretty much know when you are bleeding or on fire, but poisoning is more subtle). Don't let the drone of ZOMG!!! LEAD!!! hysteria lull you into complacency.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 4:07 AM on April 29, 2010

Go over the old paint with a primer that "builds". If I was doing it, I'd just mix in some drywall compound with the primer. After a coat or two, sand it down *just* till you break through to the old paint. Repeat until you've gone insane, or are happy with the smoothness.
posted by gjc at 6:15 AM on April 29, 2010

(I assume that this is because you pretty much know when you are bleeding or on fire, but poisoning is more subtle)

This reminds me of something I forgot to mention -- unlike many other types of poisoning, lead poisoning can have no outward symptoms, even though it may be harming a child or causing developmental problems. When you do sand or repaint, you might want to mention it to your pediatrician. The test for blood lead is really simple, and any lead that's been ingested can be flushed out of the system (which, you know, sooner the better, right) with some ease.

I agree with Kid Charlemagne that people do get overterrified of lead paint -- there are a lot of ways to deal with it, but it's definitely worth dealing with. This thread has some more detail about DIY abatement.
posted by Valet at 6:37 AM on April 29, 2010

Response by poster: Thanks for all the advice here; I haven't had a chance to look through it all. I just want to clarify that, since the paint is generally in good condition, we are not planning on stripping it at this point. We may consider stripping some or all of the woodwork at some point in the future, but are not sure having the massive amount of paint solvent that would be needed around a toddler is such a great idea either. The amount of sanding we are talking about is just what is necessary to get a good surface to paint on. For example, in the living room, I would estimate there are 5-10 spots where the paint is chipping or cracked, mostly smaller than a nickel, but none bigger than a stick of gum. I have never painted before, but I understand that you should sand these spots before repainting so it doesn't just crack again.

Any comments about how to interpret the sub 1mg/cm2 would be especially appreciated. Valet, I will read the OSHA letter you linked. Thanks
posted by nequalsone at 7:07 AM on April 29, 2010

You don't mention if you are planning on more kids, but you should be aware that pregnant women should be particularly careful about lead exposure.
posted by yohko at 7:17 AM on April 29, 2010

While I'd take sensible precautions, I wouldn't lose too much sleep over it either. As a Brit (old housing stock), virtually everyone I know lives in a house that must have some lead based paint in it somewhere. I know I grew up in up one. Nobody I know has ever had any issues with lead poisoning.
posted by rhymer at 9:48 AM on April 29, 2010

rhymer, casually growing up in a house with lead paint isn't usually an issue in and of itself. Disturbing that paint, either through neglect (flaking), sanding, scraping, or other removal techniques, can present a danger that isn't obvious and isn't detectable until well after exposure. And ultimately, we're talking about national legal requirements that have just this month gone into effect (to the surprise of far too many homeowners, contractors, and even regulators).

nequalsone, I would follow the residential guidelines for homeowners. They have an information line at 1-800-424-LEAD that should be able to answer your highly technical approach to these questions.

My personal sense is that the small amount of sanding you're talking about shouldn't be a big deal if you're careful and forgo the obvious mis-steps such as using the household vacuum to clean up.
posted by dhartung at 11:57 AM on April 29, 2010

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