Is lead in reclaimed wood a concern?
May 30, 2012 12:05 PM   Subscribe

Husband bought large paintings made with reclaimed barn wood. I swabbed them and they tested positive for lead. We have a new-ish baby. How big of a deal is this?

I'll start by saying that the last couple years I got really caught up following stories about flame retardants, BPA, etc. Pregnancy really exacerbated it. This year I've been actively working at chilling out and realizing that some things are just out of my control. I feel that I've been somewhat successful, and being too busy with a baby to spend time online reading one alarmist story after another has really helped. I'm sure I was driving my husband crazy and I'm happier for it too.

That said, I did give in to a suspicion the other day. I used a lead test swab to check the painting in the living room that's made of reclaimed barn wood. About 10% of the piece contains old wood strips with varying degrees of old white paint. It is degraded paint, to the degree that running a fingernail over it would scrape some off, but it is not actively flaking off on its own. I got conclusive red positives. And now I can't stop thinking about it.

When I brought up the possibility of lead content in these paintings a couple months ago, my husband got very upset and asked rhetorically if I had ever played near a barn as a kid. We both grew up with plenty of time in rural areas, so of course I had. I also think about how much less cautious everyone was when we were kids in the 70s/80s – the whole "well, we turned out fine!" thing. We also live in an old (1906) house. But my instinct is that having a known source of lead paint in the living room, next to the kitchen bar, in a house filled with kids, is a Really Bad Thing.

Can anyone help me separate the alarmism from the reality? As long as we keep the kids away from the paintings will it be fine? Or do we need to do something about this, like yesterday? Thanks!
posted by allisonrae to Health & Fitness (19 answers total)
Don't sand them, don't let your kid gnaw on them, everything will be fine.

If you are really worried, try to see if you could "encapsulate" them somehow with a matte sealant. Some sealant have a habit of turning an ugly yellow brown with age and exposure to UV though.
posted by stormygrey at 12:08 PM on May 30, 2012 [8 favorites]

Unless the art piece is flaking off to the point that the baby could eat the flakes, then there's no danger of lead poisoning. I think you should take your brushey vacuum cleaner extension and go over the whole thing, which will remove any dust or loose flakes. That should do it. And do it again when you're feeling anxious about it.
posted by raisingsand at 12:13 PM on May 30, 2012

Having the paint around isn't the issue, it's the possibility of the lead getting into your (or your future child's) bloodstream. So, as storymygrey said, avoid anything that would put particles of the paint into the air (sanding, etc), anything that would get the paint into your digestive system (chewing, licking), avoid lots of contact with your skin (no rubbing the paintings), and everything will be ok. Really.
posted by that's candlepin at 12:15 PM on May 30, 2012 [1 favorite]

On preview: I'll add that vaccuming the paintings might not be a good idea because vacuum cleaner filters aren't fine enough to catch all particles and can put microscopic lead bits into the air. Better to clean them outside using a soft brush or something like that.
posted by that's candlepin at 12:17 PM on May 30, 2012 [1 favorite]

Your kid will eventually grow up and knock the hell out of the painting with balls, toys, heads, fists, etc. My advice is to remove it and the stress from your life now. That way you aren't the parent that screams like the world is ending whenever someone brushes against it.
posted by rdurbin at 12:41 PM on May 30, 2012

Your kid will eventually grow up and knock the hell out of the painting with balls, toys, heads, fists, etc. My advice is to remove it and the stress from your life now. That way you aren't the parent that screams like the world is ending whenever someone brushes against it.

Just how large are these paintings? We had quite a few paintings and prints in our living room when I was growing up, all hung about four feet off the floor, and because we were not allowed to throw things inside and the paintings hung high enough to be difficult to bump into, I don't believe we ever so much as touched them. (Until I grew old enough to have to dust the frames.) I just don't think it's true that any object in any part of the home will necessarily be injured by child roughhousing. I mean, I broke a lot of stuff as a kid, but it was all either low to the ground or small enough and easy enough to read that I could get my grubby paws onto it.
posted by Frowner at 12:58 PM on May 30, 2012 [10 favorites]

Talk it out with your partner with the goal of putting the paintings in storage until the kids are all X-years old.
posted by rikschell at 12:58 PM on May 30, 2012

I think you should take your brushey vacuum cleaner extension and go over the whole thing, which will remove any dust or loose flakes.

This would pulverize any lead-containing pieces of matter, and make finer material of it, which would surely settle out on floor and furniture. Unless you use a HEPA vacuum.
posted by Danf at 1:08 PM on May 30, 2012

Are you going to use the paintings to cook your food? No? What about as a teething post for your kid? No? Then they're fine.

Your kid will eventually grow up and knock the hell out of the painting with balls, toys, heads, fists, etc.

What, is your living room a handball court?
posted by incessant at 1:10 PM on May 30, 2012 [7 favorites]

I wrote this elsewhere on the site, but I can tell it again: our tot had elevated lead levels from contact with (ie touching) a lead necklace that my spouse was wearing. The lead levels returned to normal after we removed the necklace and elevated our kid's iron levels (iron prevents the lead from being absorbed) with Floridix supplements. My spouse had his own lead tested as part of a work-up during the same time period, and showed no exposure. To me, that means that the baby's tendency to put fingers in his mouth was responsible, since my spouse handled the necklace all the time too -- but without also sucking on fingers.

Personally, I'd test the surfaces around the painting and see if any lead is detectable elsewhere, or if it's contained to the painting. You could also ask the pediatrician about iron supplements.
posted by xo at 1:14 PM on May 30, 2012

Your statement that it's "degraded paint, to the degree that running a fingernail over it would scrape some off" suggests sealant would be a good idea (keeping in mind stormygrey's advice re. finding a sealant that ages well). Points of visual focus might well become points of focus for a kid (my baby was obsessed with our biggest painting; as soon he could bounce and reach, he was constantly reaching for it in delighted-baby-desperation).
posted by kalapierson at 1:27 PM on May 30, 2012

@frowner I'd say each one is about 48" x 48", hung about three feet off the floor. The roughhousing is definitely something that happens near them due to the older kids (my beloved stepsons - 11, 8, 6) running around in that room. At the very least I've considered putting a small piece of furniture (a low console perhaps) in front of this area so they run no risk of brushing against it.
posted by allisonrae at 1:28 PM on May 30, 2012

You can have your kid's blood levels tested for lead content. If you do this occasionally as the kid grows up, you can tell positively and with no guesswork when/if it is necessary for you to move to a more lead-free environment. If it turns out that the kid's blood levels are too high you will probably need to move to a newer house/neighborhood. I doubt the paintings are a more significant source than the rest of the environment. Your whole neighborhood is made up of soil that's been absorbing the rainwater that runs off houses that are painted with all ages of paint, in all conditions, for a century.

It's hard to make guesses about risk, and what we hear on the news and online tends to be shrill and appeals to emotion: "IS YOUR CHILD AT RISK!?? VIEW OUR ADVERTISING AND FIND OUT!"

But you don't have to decide based on fear or other emotions - you can have a simple test performed, and compare the results to those maximums recommended by HHS to see where you stand.

If the kid is growing up in a very old house, you should probably do this anyway, whether or not you keep the pictures on the wall.
posted by fritley at 1:40 PM on May 30, 2012 [1 favorite]

I would probably purchase a can of matte acrylic sealer -- found in art supply stores and often used to seal pastel or chalk paintings -- and put down a good layer of sealant over the paintings. I agree that there are probably many other sources of exposure, especially in an older neighborhood, but this would give me some peace of mind.
posted by Ostara at 2:38 PM on May 30, 2012

Could you make frames for them and put them behind glass? That would be less damaging to thm than spraying them with an iffy fixative, and you could still display them. You could even get museum-quality glass, which doesn't reflect glare.
posted by tully_monster at 8:02 PM on May 30, 2012

I would not personally worry overmuch about this (but then, I don't have kids so maybe I'm not the best measure). As long as your kids aren't eating bits of the painting or regularly touching it and then sucking on their fingers or something, the amount of lead exposure they are likely to receive is pretty minimal. They really are going to have to find some way of getting the paint into their mouths in order to expose themselves to the lead.

If you are worried, I think your thought about putting a piece of furniture in front of the painting to stop your kids from bumping into it is a good step. I would also be diligent about cleaning up any bits of paint that might fall off, which I would do with a broom and dustpan rather than a vacuum in order to avoid lead dust. Finally, if you are really worried, you might swab a bit in the area around the painting to see if there is lead in the general vicinity that might have gotten there from flaking paint.

Then I'd call it a day and stop worrying about it.
posted by Scientist at 8:05 PM on May 30, 2012

As someone who endured the agony of a false-positive with my then 2-year old, I'd still say I wouldn't worry too much about this - Beyond the issue of painted toys and jewelry, the biggest source of environmental lead in the home is dust as a by-product of window panes opening and closing against frames and doors opening and closing against jambs.

I'd certainly avoid vacuuming them, and would consider having them framed (offsite or at least outside) and enclosed in glass as an extra precaution, but I wouldn't necessarily banish them from my home.
posted by jalexei at 8:54 PM on May 30, 2012

If the art is at all valuable, do not under any attempt to seal or fix them yourself. A shadowbox-style frame would enclose them away from your kid.
posted by werkzeuger at 2:37 PM on June 3, 2012

Oh, I was just going to add very late that putting a console table in front of the art or hanging it above a low bookshelf would probably solve the roughhousing problem 100%. When I think about how fragile things were hung at our house, they were nearly all above the sofa or above something else that prevented slamming into walls. (And most of them were in the front room - we spent a lot of time there reading but it was definitely not a room used for rough-and-tumble play. )
posted by Frowner at 9:01 AM on June 6, 2012

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