Old house - trying to fix up dirty moldy medicine cabinet
July 20, 2013 7:46 PM   Subscribe

Just moved into a rental house. House built circa 1920. Medicine cabinet interior was completely lined with nasty old contact paper. I pulled off most of the paper. Now I'm worried about three things: 1. The paint underneath the paper is flaking. Is there danger of lead poisoning? 2. Black mold in the corner crevices under the paper. What's the best chemical for removal? Bleach solution? 3. What's the easiest cheapest way to get new shelves that will fit? PHOTOS. Any advice or encouragement is appreciated. How do I make this cabinet clean and functional? I don't like fixing old houses. Unfortunately there is much to do in this old house. The kitchen is a contact paper festival. The rental market is tight here, so landlords don't have to care.
posted by valannc to Home & Garden (17 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
It looks just like ours. Pull off the rest of the paper, wash it down with bleach, let it dry and paint it.
posted by tamitang at 8:06 PM on July 20, 2013 [3 favorites]

For new shelves, floor tile trim pieces could work, cut to the width of the cabinet. Home Depot will usually cut tiles for you.

Bleach or scrubbing with Comet powdered cleaner will probably take care of the mold.
posted by txtwinkletoes at 8:07 PM on July 20, 2013

Best answer: Hydrogen Peroxide can also help with mold. It can get into the corners and it foams up. Put some in a spray bottle. You don't want to mix chemicals though, so do bleach or peroxide or allow adequate drying and airing time between. Use an old toothbrush or nailbrush too to get into the corners.

You can then repaint with something easy to clean (if you are allowed to paint). Otherwise just make sure to keep it clean. Also for shelves, I would suggest a thick plexi-glass. You can have someone at the hardware store cut it do your dimensions. Thick plexi should hold up as a shelf for small medicine cabinet items and be really easy to clean. I would worry that wood shelves could breed mold also.
posted by Crystalinne at 8:10 PM on July 20, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I'd check out the paint for lead, yeah. You can buy a test kit for around $10 at Home Depot or Lowe's. Then you know what you're dealing with.
posted by slidell at 8:27 PM on July 20, 2013

Remove contact paper, bleach, and paint. You might try some Kilz primer to make sure you stop the mold from coming through the new paint.
posted by pantarei70 at 8:41 PM on July 20, 2013 [1 favorite]

Is there danger of lead poisoning?

For an adult, no. For a toddler who has access to the surfaces and is mouthing everything, maybe.
posted by zippy at 9:25 PM on July 20, 2013

Best answer: I would, while taking appropriate precautions like wearing gloves, and a mask if you're sensitive to mold, bleach it, rinse it, scrub it with some kind of regular cleaner like Comet after the bleach, then paint it with a few coats of Kilz (which will block the mold AND help mitigate the potential for lead problems through chipping). If you are worried about lead, DO NOT sand the paint that is there; just paint over it. It's a rental, so you don't have to do a perfectly smooth paint job. And then maybe even put new, nice, non-ugly, WATER RESISTANT (that's key) contact paper over it if you're still worried about lead, so that the original surface does not come into contact with your stuff. (I would not worry so much about painted-over lead paint in a medicine cabinet, though, as long as you are not pregnant, do not live with children, and are not licking your medicine cabinet. If it were a food cabinet that would be a different story.)
posted by BlueJae at 9:47 PM on July 20, 2013

Your pictures make it look like that is a '60s/'70s era metal version of a bog standard, 16" X 16" medicine cabinet, made to be installed between standard spaced studs in drywalled rooms, such as are now mainly made of plastic, to avoid rusting and glass shelf breakage. Before I spent any real time, effort or money on the thing, I'd pop it out of the wall by taking out whatever few screws or nails are attaching it to the house framing, get its outside dimensions accurately, and huff it down to Home Depot, or go on line at Amazon, for a $75 replacement of similar dimesions. With the right size replacement unit in hand (or close enough that you can shim with a few cedar shingle shims), this is literally a 10 minute, minimal skill job, usually needing only a screwdriver or nail puller and a bit of tugging.

Be careful removing the old one however, as many older ones used to have a slot for single edge razor blade disposal, and when you pull out the old one, you may have a couple dozen or hundred rusty old razor blades to get rid of, too. And don't pinch wiring or plumbing when putting in the new unit, etc.
posted by paulsc at 10:32 PM on July 20, 2013 [4 favorites]

Response by poster: Thanks for all the great suggestions.
Kilz primer is a great idea. And I will paint over the the lumpy old paint. The goal is to seal, be clean and prevent mold.
I might post a request on Freecycle. Maybe someone has a half-used can of Kilz.

No kids or pets in our house. So the paint should be ok so long as I clean up the area well.
posted by valannc at 10:37 PM on July 20, 2013

For what it is worth, I agree with paulsc: replace the moldy, icky thing.
posted by Cranberry at 11:37 PM on July 20, 2013

I don't understand why you won't contact the landlord and have a new medicine chest installed.

They are dirt cheap, and install is so easy you can do it yourself.

I would not want the chemicals in Killz paint near my toothbrushes or ingestibles.

You best answered the wrong solution. Down your DIY plan lies hassle and real danger.

Get a replacement. Full stop.
posted by jbenben at 11:37 PM on July 20, 2013 [2 favorites]

The paint will have lead in it. Trust me. Having just gone through a lead abatement process for a rental place, the scales fell from my eyes. Assume that anything painted older than 1990 in a rental has lead paint. Suspect that anything after 1990 has lead in it1.

Another coat of paint is never a decent abatement except in rare circumstances (for example, there was a wall in the house that was in pristine shape and had a fairly new coat of latex paint on it. The lead inspector measured it and it was completely off the scale for the meter, he noted it, but it wasn't a violation because the paint was in great shape and there were no corners that a child could chew on). I can tell you that even if you painted that cabinet in my state it wouldn't pass lead inspection. There are surfaces that a kid could conceivably chew on and there are surfaces that are friction points. Paint is not suitable in either case.

You don't have the equipment to safely remove the paint. Even taking the cabinet out is a really bad idea because of what will come with it. Having a few similar problems in our rental place, a professional lead abatement specialist only replaced one thing: a wooden outside screen door. He removed the hinges and covered the door frame with aluminum sheeting and installed a new door. Everything else was covered up in various ways, usually with plywood.

When you removed the contact paper, you were very likely removing the lead abatement put in place by the landlord at the time. Clean thoroughly with your favorite mold killer and cover that shit back up with more contact paper. Cover every surface. Be especially careful where the door comes into contact with the frame, because the friction from that point with wear away the paint and lead-dust will find its way into your medicines.

And lead? Yeah, the landlord does have to care. A lot. If you want it to get done by someone else, test it and ask to see the lead report for the house (likely your state requires this). Even if it doesn't come up positive because there's lead paint under a coat of latex, I would STILL cover it up with contact paper.

Also, be careful with the lead test kit. The inspector I worked with has been inspecting for decades. He now uses an xray unit, but in the "good old days" they used the same chemical sold at hardware stores and he said it's much more poisonous in the concentrations it comes in than lead paint.

1Lead paint was phased out in 1978, that means all the moron land lords and home owners were still getting the last bit of life out of the paints in their basements for years after. The lead inspector told me of brand new construction that failed because of a built-in cabinet that was painted by a well-meaning grandfather with some paint he already had.
posted by plinth at 4:41 AM on July 21, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: OK, plinth is in Massachusetts, which has the toughest lead regime in the nation. The rest of the country is, to oversimplify a bit, on the EPA rules, which are a lot less stringent.*

The general rule of thumb here is that lead is generally safe if it remains undisturbed. It isn't going to leap out of the walls, if it's in or under paint that has been applied and maybe reapplied over the years. It is a particular problem in terms of windows and siding, where flakes of paint become available to small children to play with or even intentionally ingest.

But for the most part, what you want to think about is making sure that lead in place stays in place unless you have a good reason to disturb it.

I've been to a lead-safe certification program, so I'm talking about something I'm generally familiar with here. The objective is to a) evaluate the hazard, b) remediate the hazard, c) repair in such a way that you don't spread or worsen the hazard (e.g. vacuuming paint chips? you spread lead paint dust everywhere), and d) when you have a real problem, abatement.

My personal sense is that this is not a real problem. You are perfectly fine cleaning the mold (another largely overblown hazard) and then painting with a product such as Kilz. It's not going to give you lead poisoning or even allow exposure for potential kids if they lay their toothbrushes on it. The lead, if it's there, will be encased within the new coat of paint, and NOT crumbling out onto the floor or getting aerosolized in any way.

I would actually avoid removing this unit myself. I really feel, based on my training, that the hazards of renovation are far greater than the hazards of encapsulated lead.

This is also a small enough project that it basically falls under the limit for regulated renovations. There really aren't rules that will kick in, as far as I can tell, in Washington state under the EPA guidelines, but if you're concerned still, you can contact the state agency.

* I found this out in an awkward AskMeFi exchange. My bad. But I tend to suspect Massachusetts has gone overboard. Certainly, in my state, abatement would not be necessary for a situation like this. Lead exposure is a cumulative matter.
posted by dhartung at 5:07 AM on July 21, 2013

You can have a mildew use added to paint or primer.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 6:39 AM on July 21, 2013

I know this is marked answered, but I have a tip for the shelves:

We basically did this to an old cabinet and we went down to our local hardware store (an Ace franchise, but famous for being well-run) and had them cut glass shelves. (Which is what the cabinet probably had in the first place) It was quite cheap.

We also peeled off contact paper, cleaned and repainted. My personal tolerance for this kind of risk is pretty high, just because I live in an old, old house and nothing is ever really going to be up to super-strict modern safety standards...it seems like a waste of time for me personally to worry about a fairly careful repaint over possible lead with all the other stuff we've got going on. If your house is old and crumbly too, you might consider that.
posted by Frowner at 7:13 AM on July 21, 2013 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: What an interesting discussion! Thanks for all the replies. Askmefi is the best!

Regarding this rental house. We took this crumbling house because we love the neighborhood. Seattle's rental prices have sky-rocketed and good neighborhoods have very short inventory. Our landlord stated he has limited resources for repairs. He is addressing a couple of serious safety issues (i.e. lack of safety railing on exterior landing). In reality, if we don't like this place, the landlord can have 20 people lined up to compete for the privilege of renting it. This is not an exaggeration.
We are here for at least a year and will make the best of it, while spending as little as possible.

We will not remove the medicine cabinet. I will clean gently and carefully, paint with Kilz, and ask my hardware store for the cheapest shelves. And will post a photo here when done.

@plinth, thanks for your sobering viewpoint.
The lead paint concerns are compelling. I've decided to leave the kitchen contact paper in place -- even though it is gross and unsanitary. I will clean it lightly (to not disturb the paint) and apply larger sheets of contact paper on top.
posted by valannc at 11:03 AM on July 21, 2013

One thing about the hardware store lead tests is that they take time to register the result. I bought one once and didn't wait long enough. The tester area turned positive while I was sanding--doh! So make sure to read the directions about how long to wait if you choose to use a test.

I used to work in lead poisoning prevention and it is important to know that lead dust that you kick up can travel to other nearby houses and poison developing children, so please do take care. I have seen numerous cases where children were exposed to lead dust coming from a neighbor's renovations.
posted by dottiechang at 9:45 PM on July 21, 2013

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