Lead Paint: The Whole Story

By Scott Sidler August 5, 2013

Peeling Lead Paint
Image credit: gjermund / 123RF Stock Photo

Lead paint and lead poisoning, as it pertains to old houses, have long been a lightning rod of controversy. Some people even refuse to own an old home due to fears of lead paint. But lead paint may not be the national health concern you’ve been told it is.

I’d like to start by saying that lead poisoning is nothing to scoff at. For children under 6 yrs. old and pregnant women, even the smallest amount of lead can be very dangerous. I have a 4-month old son and we are vigilant about protecting him from exposure to lead paint around our old house.

That being said, I believe that the recent EPA and CDC rules and regulations concerning lead paint are completely unwarranted and accomplish nothing but increasing costs for homeowners and contractors.

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My company is very careful to follow the complex array of rules laid out in the EPA’s Renovation, Repair and Painting (RRP) rule that went into effect April 2010. We take pictures, record paperwork, distribute literature, control dust and the slew of other things required by the rule.

Strangely, the CDC’s most recent testing shows that there was really no need for these regulations in the first place. Other than being a veiled attempt to bring additional money and power to the EPA’s coffers in the way of licensing fees, fines and regulatory powers under the guise of “public safety” these rules seem to have had little if any effect on the rates of lead poisoning among our children.

The Facts

Lead paint was banned by the EPA in 1978 for use in “child-occupied facilities” (residences, schools, daycare, churches, etc.). Prior to 1978 it was slowly being phased out as a paint additive, and the older a house is the more likely it is to have lead paint.

Lead is dangerous because the body cannot determine the difference between lead and calcium and thus attempts to use lead in the same metabolic processes as calcium. At high rates of exposure this causes a list of non-descript symptoms such as:

  • Lethargy
  • Pain, numbness or tingling of the extremities
  • Muscular weakness
  • Headache
  • Abdominal pain
  • Memory loss
  • Mood disorders

In children’s developing bodies, lead is particularly damaging because it often causes irreversible learning disorders and stunted mental development.

In 2010 the EPA passed new regulations dictating how renovators must conduct their work in buildings built before 1978. Renovators must now be licensed and follow not only very stringent work rules regarding dust creation and containment, but also a barrage of paperwork that must be filed and saved ad naseum.

Compliance with these regulations has greatly increased costs which are passed on to homeowners to help cover the extra materials, licensing costs, increased labor costs and general extra risk (fines for non compliance can be as high as $35,000 per incident!) associated with working under an RRP license.

The Hidden Truth

But the EPA isn’t telling the whole story. Lead poisoning rates in children under 6 have been falling steadily to minuscule amounts as of 2011 (the last year stats are available). All this without the EPA’s new burdensome lead safe RRP rules.

Lead Paint Chart
Source: //www.cdc.gov/nceh/lead/data/national.htm

In my home state of Florida in 2009 (the last full year without the RRP rule being in effect) the CDC shows that there were 0.12% of children under 72 months old with a Blood Lead Level (BLL) of 10 mcg or more per deciliter (the previous safe limit). In 2011, the same testing showed that the number children above the safe BLL was 0.13%. Not exactly a stunning example of progress.

What’s more interesting is what the whole picture looks like. The CDC has stats showing the number of cases of lead poisoning going back to 1997. In Florida, that number has decreased from 6.05% in 1997 to 0.13% in 2011. In other states the numbers have been even more dramatic. California has decreased their rate of lead poisoning from 18.33% in 1997 to 0.20% in 2011! And how about states with a huge stock of old houses covered in lead paint? Massachusetts for example has gone from 3.23% in 1997 to 0.35% in 2011.

In fact, the country as a whole has made huge strides in eliminating lead poisoning in children under 6 (there is no lead poisoning threshold for adults and children over 6 yrs old). Since 1997 the national numbers have gone down from 7.61% to 0.56%. Since 1997 alone that represents a 92.6% reduction in Blood Lead Levels of unsafe levels!

When you look at numbers like these does it seem that the country is in imminent danger from lead paint? No, in fact it sounds like through education and prevention we have been making huge strides at keeping our children safe from the dangers of lead long before the EPA stepped in to try to make some money and usurp some power.

A large part of this improvement is from airborne lead levels mainly from the removal of lead from gasoline. The Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990 mandated the elimination of lead from all U.S. motor fuel by January 1, 1996. This important step in protecting our children has created huge gains in public health where lead exposure is concerned. The chart below shows how airborne lead levels in the U.S. have decreased 89% between 1980 and 2010. The elimination of leaded gasoline has arguably done more for preventing lead poisoning than anything else.

airborne lead chart
Source: //www.epa.gov/air/airtrends/lead.html#pbnat
Conclusions

Supported by all this data, I think we can safely say that old lead paint, while a potential danger, is not the overly-hyped, expensively regulated, massive health problem that it has been made out to be.

If you have peeling paint in a house built before 1978 you should be careful. Young children like to put things in their mouths and paint chips are one possible option. Also, when embarking on old house renovations think carefully about containing dust and protecting your family.

I don’t think a brazen, no holds barred renovation and remodeling climate is what we need, but something a bit more flexible than the currently cumbersome and unwieldy RRP lead-safe work and documentation rules would do wonders to help homeowners and renovators work together. Especially, in houses that don’t have children or pregnant women.

If unsafe blood lead levels were designed with children in mind and with the purpose of protecting children then why are we treating adults like children? While we’re at it, we might as well require all adults in a car to be in a car seat, since that is the safest option. How about outlawing unhealthy salts, fats, sweets and soft drinks over a certain size too? But no one would attempt that. That is just too ridiculous to even imagine. Or is it?

What do you think? Have I gone too far or is there a change needed?

 

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24 thoughts on “Lead Paint: The Whole Story”

  1. I disagree with those who cry over-regulation. I am a contractor and have taken the RRP course for certification. I found it very useful. Lead is a unique toxin–there is no known safe level of exposure. Think of it this way: regulators are simply doing what we should all be doing–advocating for the health of our children. If it costs more to be safe, so be it.

    More here://www.motherjones.com/environment/2016/02/lead-exposure-gasoline-crime-increase-children-health/

  2. This makes more sense to me.
    I’ve been digging on this subject for two days & I’ve even found “experts” saying lead leeches into the grain of the wood & this the wood is always infected regardless or refinishing. I can see that on say pine but not the hardwoods and these experts think all wood is the same.

    So I just bought (haven’t swapped out yet) a really neat old Victorian cast iron bed but it has prob 4 different coats of paint on it that are cracked/showing at most of the seams where different peices of metal meet. The bed is for the grown ups but you know the kids will come in the master bed room when they need help and stuff. Youngest kid is 2. So I’m trying to figure out how to address this properly. Do I find someone to strip the cast iron bed since the kids would be one premise if I try at home? Do I spray a ton of poly on this to seal in any issues?

    In researching this bed and the seriousness of the lead….. I have a old solid oak exterior Victorian etched glass door in the dining room ( rescued from a building demolition). The paint isn’t peeling at all but I’d be hard put to believe one of the many coats of paint on it isn’t lead. Makes me wonder if I should wisk it off to the furniture refinisher so the paint is removed off site.
    I was planning on redoing the the door someday but I was thinking 5-6 years due to more important house repairs & the door is massive to uninstall and haul.

  3. I appreciate your article’s balanced perspective. I would be interested to know how much lead, in what form, a child would need to ingest to be concerning. If, in a moment of mommy distraction, my child puts a handful of dirt contaminated with lead paint chips from a peeling house, in his mouth, is this one time event enough to cause alarm?

  4. Great article with important information I was very surprised even with the comments…I have currently taken a course for both asbestos and lead and I have my license this is extremely dangerous to the public in my opinion because so many people are not educated. I had been exposed to both lead and asbestos while completing a demo job had I not taken the course I never would have known….the common sense rule of wet methods with any pealing of paint should be told to all homeowners!

  5. I find it strange however that part of proper RRP practices interim control methods are allowed which is basically simple paint. Alternative practice methods that actually treat, seal and render lead non hazardous for disposal are available. Ecobondlbp.com

  6. The EPA is being overly harsh and not too helpful at that! They will fine a contractor for using a HEPA vacuum that’s not certified for lead work, but they (the EPA) don’t have a list of HEPA vacuums that are suitable for lead-safe work practices.

    If you use a HEPA vacuum for removing exterior lead paint from your house, which ones should you use? I was thinking of using Dustless Technologies, but when I called them about service, they said if I want service, I’d have to ship the vacuum to them.

    No thanks. I’d rather buy a HEPA vacuum (with a sealed chassis) from a local place that has a service center. I live in southeast Louisiana…so I was thinking of getting a HEPA vacuum from Aramsco….

    Thoughts?

      1. I bought a Festool Mini about 25 days ago. The instructions (on page 11) said “Warning: Not suitable to vacuum hazardous or toxic substances e.g., asbestos..then the instruction manual went on to say the filters will not be able to capture all particles and may exhaust them back into the environment. It’s there in black and white…

          1. I just re-visited the Festool Web site: it is contradicting itself: one section (NOT a part of the instruction manual) says that it is designed for picking up lead paint chips. However, the instruction manual IS online, and it says that the Festool Mini is NOT designed for picking up hazardous materials like lead or asbestos. Here’s what Festool’s web site said about its Mini:

            //www.festoolusa.com/media/pdf/703005_002_CT_MINI-MIDI_HEPA_USA.pdf

            ***beginning of quoted material from Festool’s Web Site:***

            Vacuuming dry materials
            Not suitable to vacuum hazardous or toxic substances or dusts e.g. asbestos. The filters will not be able to capture all particlesand
            may exhaust them back into the environment. (page 11 of the instruction manual which IS on the web site too)!

            ***end of quoted material***

            I did not realize the discrepancy until yesterday because I believed what the first part of Festool’s web site said (that the mini was designed for toxic materials)…it was not until yesterday that I noticed the 2nd part where it says the mini is NOT designed for lead-safe work. I will be taking this vacuum back…I have not used it at all so that will make it easier for me to return it for a full refund. I just can’t bring myself to use it with a serious discrepancy like this…two different parts of the very same web site are saying contradictory things about the same HEPA vacuum…which makes me uncomfortable.

  7. Thank you for putting the lead paint issue in context, Scott. There are many hazards in life, knowing what you are doing means we can keep on doing what needs doing. What frustrates me is the lack of nutritional education that is missing from the lead paint debate. If you have enough calcium and iron in your body it is very hard to absorb lead. Most lead poisoned children are also malnourished.

  8. Great synopsis! I want to offer another perspective. I am one of those government lead inspectors types. I primarily investigate cases of poisoned children. There are still many children being impacted and there are lots of contractors brazenly ignoring the most basic parts of lead-safe work practices. I see it every single day. Lead-poisoning is the #1 preventable environmental disease. Low-level lead exposure causes permanent brain damage with lifelong neuropsychological impairment. That is a huge price to pay…

    That being said, the regulations are making it hard for contractors to do their job. Absolutely. But I’m not sure where the balance is.

    The real bad guys are the paint industry. A recent court case found that the big paint manufacturing companies knew the lead paint was toxic but still proceeded to make, sell, and promote their product. Now they have to pay (over 1 billion dollars).

    1. What court case was that? I’d like to get those painting companies to pay for the expense of removing lead from my house!

  9. Makes you wonder if we’ll see a similar reaction in 30 years to houses with PVC plumbing and vinyl flooring. We may have phthalate, DBP, BBP and DEHP abatement contractors popping up in yellow suits.

  10. No, you have not gone too far. The recent studies published by credible sources all point to the immediate and overwhelming dangers of soda and the effects it has on our children…. but nobody is doing anything about that!! Yeah, I wouldn’t recommend that you let your kid lick the peeling walls, but as you know, so much of the building industry is nothing more than trying to find ways to make money off of people. Great post!

  11. This stems beyond lead paint, but being the sort of “hippie” mom that I am, I think the CDC is just a fear-mongering machine. People think if it’s of the government, it must be truth. But the best thing you can do as a consumer is to do your own research. I completely understand the risks associated with living in a house built over 100 years ago, but it doesn’t drive me to be scared of my house like the government says I should be. The over abundance of laws is a little sad, although I can understand why they regulate it so tight. It does make it a struggle to find a balance and unfortunately it seems the burden falls on the homeowner and restorators.

    toni

  12. I agree. I think common sense should dictate how to deal with lead paint issues, not the government. Keeping the work area sealed, and cleaning when finished is the best way to contain lead paint (or any debris, for that matter). Thanks for sharing this information, Scott!

  13. Even though my husband and I have no children and do all our own work we have still run into issues with RRP rules. We recently considered purchasing a HUD home built in 1968. Because of the age of the house HUD paid thousands for lead testing. After testing four hundred separate locations in the house they found lead paint on a basement handrail and wanted us to spend another $1500 to have it professionally remediated (ie – replace the hand rail). We bought another house rather than deal with the HUD headache.

  14. Thank you for laying this out in a logical manner. The RRP rules unduly burden owners of historic homes by adding significantly to the cost of renovation.

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