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Lead in Your Home: How to Safely Identify Issues and Avoid Exposure

Lead in the HomeThere are many thousands of homes that contain lead in some quantity, and this can present a serious health problem at times. Lead was banned in home construction decades ago, but older homes may still have it. Although lead poisoning can present itself quickly, it may be months or even years before people realize that they have an issue. In addition, households that do not know they could have lead contamination may not think to look to it as a possible cause.

A high accumulation of lead in the body damages red blood cells and constricts the flow of oxygen, which can result in a number of health conditions. Lead poisoning is particularly dangerous for young children and pregnant women, as lead can inhibit development. In the worst cases, it can even be fatal.

Fortunately, households have a number of ways that they can cultivate a better understanding of their risk of lead exposure. If people suspect that they may have a problem, they should not delay gaining a clearer picture of the lead contamination on the property. Quick action may help people know where lead may be present in their homes, as well as what they can do to mitigate the damage.

Signs a Home May Have a Lead Issue

Older Home (Pre-1978)

Vintage House With Lead Issue

Construction industry standards change over time, as experts learn more about the health effects resulting from certain materials. When buying a new construction home, you won't typically won't need to worry about things like lead or asbestos. Although it is outlawed for construction now, for centuries, builders and other construction professionals used lead in certain aspects of the home. Lead is a naturally-occurring metal that is abundant in quantity. People liked it as a building material because it is durable and resistant to moisture. In fact, the use of lead dates back so far that the word “plumber” derives from the Latin word for lead.

Given thousands of years of use, it took a long time for researchers to understand the problems prolonged exposure creates in the home. It was not until the late 1970s that the U.S. banned the use of lead in certain building and plumbing materials. Some states had already taken this step by then. Homes built prior to that may have lead pipes for plumbing, or lead paint on the walls. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that nearly nine in 10 homes built before 1940 will have lead paint somewhere on the structure. By comparison, perhaps only a quarter of homes built in the 1970s will have it.

People with properties dating back to 1978 or earlier should not assume that the problem should be resolved by now. Even when buying a luxury home built, one should not assume lead was not used in some capacity during construction. When plumbers replace a line, they do not always remove the old pipework. Residents typically do not remove paint before adding a new color. Old lead paint may be covered under several layers of fresh paint.

Lead Exposure Symptoms

Lead can be inhaled, but it is most commonly consumed by mouth. Since it is a common element, people may ingest a small amount of lead despite their best efforts to avoid it. Lead exposure creates specific health problems for adults and children. It passes through the bloodstream and settles in the bones. These health issues can occur at almost any level, but tend to get worse for people who live in a home with lead paint or lead-contaminated drinking water.

When lead first starts to accumulate, people may feel tired or have nausea and headaches. These issues may become more serious if the source is not removed. Pregnant women may suffer miscarriages or infertility. Children exposed to lead during gestation or early life may encounter cognitive or developmental delays.

Extreme exposure could cause:

  • tingling in the hands and feet
  • memory loss
  • hypertension
  • seizures
  • hearing loss
  • anemia
  • and other serious disorders.

Without prompt care, many of these conditions could be permanent.

People should keep in mind that a lack of common signs of lead poisoning does not serve as proof that lead is not a problem on the property. Sometimes, symptoms can be so slight that people do not notice them until the issue has become quite severe. Since lead poisoning is so much more serious for children who may not be able to effectively communicate how they feel, parents may need to be proactive and investigate/inspect their home to catch and prevent lead exposure.

“Alligatoring” Paint

Lead Paint Chips

People who live in older homes have probably heard that lead paint is a common concern but might not know what to look for. Paint made of different materials can give a unique appearance over time. Paint with lead tends to “alligator” the older it gets. Alligatoring paint describes a process in which an oil-based paint or enamel is applied to a surface and degrades over time. The effect looks like an alligator’s scales. This does not necessarily mean that the paint is made with lead, however. Any oil-based paint can encounter this, especially if it is:

  • layered on a softer surface
  • applied before the bottom layer has dried
  • located in an area with extreme temperature fluctuation

If homeowners suspect that their home may have lead paint, alligatoring is a sign that they need to have it tested. As the paint cracks, it may chip or peel. This could make the paint easier to ingest by accident. 

Where Lead Is Commonly Found in Homes

Lead paint and lead pipes are a fairly familiar concept, but lead exposure can spread outward from these sources. In some cases, households may simply have to deal with a higher levels of lead naturally occurring on or near their properties. Otherwise, they should consider manmade items containing lead that could spread trouble inside and outside their homes.

On the property, old lead pipes can wreak havoc anywhere they come in contact with water. People have a tendency to leave pipes where they are, as long as they seem to be moving water appropriately. This means that some homes might have plumbing that is almost 100 years old. Lead leaches into the running water, but also spreads into the soil and groundwater. People living in newer homes built on old properties that still have lead pipes underground may ingest lead from produce grown in that soil or watered from the ground.

Inside the home, lead pipes can carry contaminated water that households use for cooking, washing or drinking. Lead paint can turn to dust that children consume by touching their hands to their mouths. This can occur do to improper remediation or repeatedly opening and closing windows with lead painted sills. Any surface that infants and young children may chew on, such as a windowsill, should be considered a likely problem in a home with lead paint. Paint chips and lead from the soil can fall to the flooring as dust that people can ingest or inhale. Old jewelry or glassware handed down as family heirlooms may contain lead. These items should not be used to prepare or serve food.

What to Do If You Suspect Lead Is Present In Your Home

Lead Inspections

Before one can make decisions about how they want to approach a lead problem, they need information about the extent of their personal risk. Inspecting a home for lead requires care and precision. Although lead-based paint is commonly found on a home’s exterior and interior walls, it can be located virtually anywhere on the property. Any inspection must be completed by a person who holds a certification as an inspector or a risk assessor.

Inspecting a Home for Lead

The goal of a lead-based paint inspection is to identify the presence of lead on various surfaces of the structures on the property. The process often involves swab tests on the painted surfaces. Some inspectors will use a special machine that relies on x-rays to scan surfaces that may contain lead. Since lead paint is much more hazardous when disturbed, testing should not generate or stir up lead dust. The testing can show a positive result, even if the wall has had several new coats of paint in the ensuing years. In many cases, homeowners can receive a rapid result during the process.

At the conclusion of the inspection, the person conducting the testing can tell people if they have lead paint and where it is located. The presence of lead is not necessarily a hazard in and of itself. Lead paint that is well-contained may remain that way for years into the future. In most cases, it is up to homeowners to determine what they want to do. They should keep in mind that once they have the results of the report showing that there is lead in the home, they must provide this information to future home buyers.

Lead Risk Assessment

Those who worry that their lead risk could be more significant may want to arrange for a lead risk assessment in addition to a lead-based paint inspection. The risk assessment, which should be done only by a qualified assessor, is a thorough analysis of the property. While a lead paint inspection tests only surfaces, an assessment provides information about lead presence everywhere on the lot, including structures, soil, and water.

Lead risk assessments tend to take longer to complete and require more time for testing before homeowners can get a final result. This process involves a detailed inspection of the property and collection of various samples for analysis. At the conclusion of the assessment, the report should indicate how much lead is present on the property, as well as its location and severity. Most of the time, the assessment also identifies a few ways that property owners can mitigate the damage or remove the source of the contamination.

Since a lead risk assessment is so much more comprehensive, people who are unsure about lead on the property may want to start with a lead inspection first. This can help them determine if they need more testing. By comparison, those who have symptoms of lead poisoning or who already know that the home has lead may want to go straight to the risk assessment. They could also decide to do both types at the same time, to provide an answer right away and a more detailed report in time. That way, they can plan to lessen their exposure as quickly as possible.

Testing Drinking Water for Lead

Although many focus on the risk presented by lead paint, lead in drinking water may also pose a serious problem for people living in older homes. Many decades ago, lead pipes were commonly used for plumbing. Over time, builders shifted to materials like copper, but continued to use lead as a way to solder pipes together. These old pipes could be anywhere in the line of older properties, including on the city’s main water lines. Pipes of any metal can corrode and begin to flake off into the water as they age, and lead is no exception. Homeowners who have reason to suspect they have lead in the home’s plumbing should test it to get further information.

Testing Water for Lead

People need to be ready for testing before they start collecting samples. They can ask a professional to come out and test their water. Otherwise, they may be able to take a water sample themselves and send it to a laboratory for testing. Lead leaches into water that sits in the pipe for a time. As such, constantly running water may not provide an accurate count of the lead. The Safe Drinking Water Act and Lead and Copper Rule mandate waiting at least six hours with the water sitting in the pipes before turning on a faucet to collect for testing. This means that occupants should avoid running a shower, sink, dishwasher, or clothes washer for at least six hours prior to collection.

With a correct sample, a lab can identify how much lead is in the water. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency sets a limit of 15 parts per billion as the maximum allowable lead content, although no amount is considered safe for consumption. This test may not be able to show where the lead is located. Homeowners might need to conduct further testing to figure out where the contamination originates, whether on the property or in the municipal water line.

Home Buying Considerations

Home buyers looking at properties with structures built prior to 1978 should take extra care in evaluating the risk of lead exposure. Although sellers are required to disclose information they have about the home’s condition, it is possible that they may not know if the home contains lead. Their knowledge may also be incomplete. For example, they may disclose the presence of lead paint, but be unaware of the materials used in the home’s plumbing.  

Buyers should be aware that home inspections usually do not test for lead. If people want to be absolutely certain, they may need to pay extra for a lead inspection or a lead risk assessment. A real estate agent can often help buyers decide if the home would be a good candidate for these additional tests.

Common Methods to Address Lead Paint

Paint Removal

Removing Lead From House

Removing the paint from the surface may be a fair choice for homeowners, but it depends on the circumstances. Scrubbing or scraping paint without generating a large amount of toxic lead dust is a specialized skill that the average homeowner will not have. Contractors must be properly certified to perform this work. Common methods to take the paint off the surface involve wet sanding or using a paint stripper. People should confirm that they have identified all areas of the home that contain lead paint in advance of any remediation efforts. If the lead is confined to limited areas, such as a single door or space surrounding a window, it may take less time and money to complete this task.

Paint removal often starts with sanding the surface. This often stirs up a lot of dust that can be hazardous. It is typically advised to shut off the home’s ventilation systems and provide other sources of contained ventilation. This will help prevent lead dust from settling into the ductwork and cycling throughout the home. Wearing a mask, gloves, protective eyewear and clothing will minimize personal exposure. A sander connected to a HEPA-filter can take off the paint and vacuum the dust at the same time. Some contractors prefer to use a heat gun that loosens the paint enough that they can scrape it away by hand.

Before selecting this method, homeowners should be honest about their abilities and expectations. Hiring a professional to do this work for a large area could cost thousands of dollars. Some may be tempted to save money by doing it themselves, but they must ensure that they do not put themselves at risk. In some cases, it may make as much sense to consider replacing the surface instead of the paint. This is especially true for structural components that need regular replacement anyway, such as windows or siding.

Encapsulation

The process of encapsulation may be the most familiar to some, since it closely replicates the common act of painting a home’s interior. Encapsulation involves the application of a special coat that seals in the lead paint and prevents it from flaking off over time. Although regular paint can slow a lead paint’s deterioration, it does not function like an encapsulant. People who want to take this route should confirm that they buy the correct products, or hire a professional to perform the task.

Only certain surfaces are appropriate for encapsulation, and the coating is not designed to last indefinitely. Wear or exposure to significant changes in temperature can cut down on the protective qualities. Walls and windowsills may be ideal surfaces, as long as the windowsill will not encounter a lot of wear. Stairs or spaces where people sit or stand may lose the coating too quickly to make it an effective option. Areas that can stay clean and dry will typically provide the best installation and long-term use.

Since encapsulation can be done for as low as a few hundred dollars, many homeowners may want to try it first for homes with limited sources of lead paint. However, the application might not be as easy as it seems. Materials that act as encapsulants may be appropriate for some surfaces but not others. If the product requires sanding in order to apply the coating, it could stir up lead dust. In that case, it may be better to consider other options, such as paint removal  or surface replacement. Once the layer has been installed properly, people should plan to keep a periodic watch for signs of damage or wear on the surface. They may need to reapply the coating on occasion.

Enclosure

Since so much of lead paint’s exposure comes through direct contact, some homeowners find success covering the surface with a permanent barrier appropriate for the paint’s location. Paint that is in relatively good condition could last for years without necessarily presenting a significant problem. Lead often poses much more harm the more it is disturbed. Stopping people from touching it will reduce wear, limiting the amount of lead chips or dust that can fall to the floor or rub off on hands.

The type of enclosure typically depends on the placement. For example, lead paint on a windowsill might require a cover made of metal or wood that completely separates the existing paint job from human contact. Lead paint on a home’s exterior might be fairly easily covered by new siding. Some might even choose to put up another layer of drywall to cover an interior wall.

Before starting the project, it is crucial to remove all lead dust and chipped or peeling paint. The installation process could generate debris from the paint. Homeowners should be prepared to clean up thoroughly during and after the project is complete. Finishing the task by sealing off all gaps will prevent dust from coming out the top, sides or bottom. Caulking around the perimeter can be helpful in achieving this goal.

Enclosure isn't a permanent solution, but it may be relatively effective and reasonably affordable. If the enclosure ever becomes damaged in any way, homeowners risk increasing their lead exposure. People must confirm that they have all other aspects of the home under control. For example, poor ventilation could increase the moisture in the walls, damaging a fresh installation of drywall. Home sellers will also need to disclose the presence of lead paint, even if it is completely covered by another surface.

Surface Replacement

In certain circumstances, households will decide to replace the entire contaminated surface. This approach is not without health risks, but they can be prevented in many cases. The cost of this project varies widely, depending on the size of the space and the surface that needs replacement. Replacing structures within the home will likely call for a certified professional trained in the safely handling of lead paint.

Surface replacement might look a bit similar to other significant renovations of a home. Homeowners dealing with old drywall might decide to tear it all down and put up new drywall. If the interior walls have lead paint, taking out the existing wallboard should remove those sources. This is also true for other surfaces that may have lead paint, such as:

  • siding
  • exterior walls
  • baseboards
  • interior or exterior doors
  • windows
  • stairs
  • railings or banisters

The person doing the work must be prepared for the likelihood that they will dramatically increase their lead exposure during the demolition and removal process. Workers may lessen the risk by spraying surfaces with a wet mist to keep the dust from floating in the air and wearing appropriate protective gear.

Homeowners may prefer this approach if they are already dealing with health effects from lead exposure, or if they want to sell the home. Unlike many other options, this is a permanent solution that should get rid of lead exposure from the paint. It may also provide a necessary update for the home that increases its relevance and value in relation to other properties in the area. For this reason, people might consider it an investment rather than simply a repair.

Leaving As-Is

Like other possible contaminants in the home, there are certain circumstances in which leaving lead paint may be a viable choice. Any removal option requires stirring up the lead, which means that homeowners must ensure that they have successfully mitigated the danger. If there is a small amount of lead paint in a home without young children or pregnant women, people may decide to leave it alone. It could also make sense to take this approach for homes with an uncertain lead presence while professionals pursue testing.

Lead paint under layers of another paint may not have a high likelihood of peeling or cracking. In this case, homeowners could opt to keep an eye on the situation and change their minds if and when it becomes an issue. However, people must keep in mind that they will be required to disclose knowledge of lead paint if they plan to sell the house.

Addressing Lead in Tap Water

Flushing Out System

Reducing Lead Content in Water

Reducing lead exposure in a plumbing system that contains some lead components often requires homeowners to run more water. Flushing out the system before using water for drinking or cooking can cut down on the lead content. Warm or hot water increases leaching, as does long periods of time where the water stagnates. Homeowners should plan to run cold water through the pipes for at least a few minutes, depending on the lead’s location. Filling clean containers for later use after flushing out can help people save water and time.

Source: Fixtures/Interior Pipes

People who know or suspect that the lead pipes are located in the home’s plumbing can target their efforts to flush out more specifically. Households should avoid assuming they know the extent of the lead plumbing until they have confirmation through water testing and talking to their local water authority, however. Residents should run the faucet on cold for a few minutes to clear out the worst contaminated water before using it for consumption. They need to repeat this step every time, especially after the water sits for several hours. Since any lead content could be harmful, this approach may not be appropriate for pregnant women, infants, or young children.

Source: Header Pipe

Lead pipes located at the street often call for more care. Lead-tainted water from this source could travel to any faucet in the home. To provide a higher level of protection, homeowners can run faucets at a higher volume, such as a shower, for a longer period of time. After that task is complete, people need to run the kitchen faucet cold for a few minutes to complete the process. Homeowners should inform everyone living in the household about these requirements, as they must be done every time. It is not a permanent solution, but may decrease health risks while waiting for the city to make upgrades.

Lead Source Removal: Difficult and Sometimes Impossible

The only way to completely eliminate the risk of lead is to get rid of it entirely, which might not always be realistic. Homeowners may not change their plumbing for decades because it requires so much physical work, often demolition. As their plumbing ages, most people replace parts of their plumbing as they need it. Cities tend to do the same with their water supply lines. Pipes that seem to be working correctly could sit there for a century or longer.

Replacing fixtures within the house may be simple and inexpensive, so there is little reason for people not to do this. By comparison, replacing underground plumbing often can be complicated and expensive. Even if the lead source is located at the street, many cities require that homeowners pay for upgrades. Since this usually involves digging and displacing structures or landscaping, it can cost several thousand dollars. People who lack the funding to make the upgrade may have to use other methods to control their risk of lead exposure.

In addition, partial replacement may actually increase lead levels. Certain cities have attempted to manage their water contamination by replacing parts of the line, but not all of it. This can cause more lead to enter the water by disrupting the pipes and corroding them while connecting new pipework into the old line. That increase could last for some time after replacement.

Getting a Certified Lead-Reducing Water Filter

Filtering Lead From Water

Those who do not have many options for removing lead plumbing on their property may consider buying filters that are proven to remove lead from drinking water. They should be careful to use filters that have been verified by an organization such as the National Sanitation Foundation (NSF). These products have been tested using water containing lead up to 150 parts per billion, ten times the amount allowed by the EPA.

People have a variety of options in these kinds of filters, depending on their needs. The most basic system features a carafe into which residents can pour water for filtration as they need it. Homeowners can also install filters that:

  • attach to a kitchen faucet and divert water before it runs out the spout
  • pull out lead from a cold water line connected to a refrigerator
  • connect to the kitchen plumbing through the countertop
  • reduce lead levels as part of a reverse osmosis system

People may want to research multiple approaches for convenience, and make sure they know how to use them correctly. Filters should be changed on a regular basis, based on manufacturer recommendations. Testing usually confirms that the filter will continue to work past its listed lifespan, but homeowners should not count on them to last indefinitely. Keeping a backup supply of filters on hand can make it easier for people to swap out the cartridges when necessary.

Distillation

According to the CDC, distillation can help remove lead (as well as a number of other contaminants) from water. While simply boiling water does not remove lead, distillation systems work by boiling water and "catching" water vapor in a separate container. This is often a very cost-effective solution with many different kinds of systems on the market for consumers. Distillation is also arguably more environmentally friendly than some of these other options, as it produces a lot less waste than running the tap for a while or purchasing bottled water.

Using Bottled Water

Many decide that they would rather use bottled water from another source for consumption. This is particularly important for more vulnerable populations (such as pregnant women or children), since methods like flushing out may not completely mitigate the risk. Verification of bottled water quality can vary from one company to the next, so people should do some research into the products that will be best for them. All bottled water sold in the U.S. must meet EPA standards for contaminants such as lead. However, manufacturers’ adherence to voluntary guidelines like those of the NSF might not be consistent. Shoppers may want to look into a bottler’s track record with overall compliance before making a choice. Keeping a ready supply of safe bottled water can also reduce the chance that people will be caught unprepared when guests come to visit.

Other Important Information

Cold vs Hot Water From the Tap

Although homeowners may think of hot water as the most pure and safe, with lead, the opposite is more accurate. Hot water encourages lead pipes and solder to flake off. Boiling the water does not change the toxic nature of this element. Instead, people who live in lead-contaminated homes should commit to running only cold water if they plan to cook or drink it, performing the flushing out procedure as needed. They can use a clean pot or pan to heat the water on the stove for use without increasing their lead exposure.

Bathing

Lead contamination occurs through consumption, not absorption. As such, bathing and showering in water with lead may not be unsafe or impractical if done with care. However, homeowners should keep a watchful eye on babies and young children. They are more likely to drink water while bathing, which could pose a threat to them long-term. There are rare cases when the lead content of water is so high that people cannot safely bathe in it. In most cases, people will not put themselves at risk in this way. This means that homeowners can focus their efforts on reducing their water-based lead exposure through faucets that deliver water for consumption.

General Safety Precautions for Homes With Lead

Renovation, Repair, and Painting (RRP) Rule

Staying Safe When Dealing With Mold

Because disrupting lead paint or pipework can be more harmful than leaving it undisturbed, the EPA sets specific regulations for contractors who provide services that may stir it up. Licensed contractors must undergo training that guides them through common threats posed during renovation, repair and painting (RRP) in a home that contains lead. The company offering the service to homeowners is required to obtain approval from the EPA or an appropriate state agency. RRP does not just apply to lead abatement projects, however. Any business that works with older homes should have this certification. All workers participating in homes that may contain lead should understand how to safely work around lead and minimize the spread of lead dust.

To remove sources of lead, homeowners will want to consider hiring a qualified contractor to perform the tasks. They should ask for proof of the contractor’s state licensing, as well as evidence that all renovators have the necessary training. Even if property owners are not completing the work themselves, understanding the process can help them verify that the area will be safe once construction is done. In particular, they should ask the contractor about their plans to:

  • remove the lead sources as completely as possible
  • ventilate the space as they work
  • clean up lead dust that may settle onto other surfaces
  • confirm that the lead has been successfully controlled or removed

Homeowners who choose to do lead abatement personally should research safe work practices they can employ to limit their exposure. Wearing protective gear, removing all unnecessary equipment from the room, misting surfaces before sanding, and wiping walls and floors clean afterward can help to ensure a better result.

Safely Maintaining a Home With Lead

The best thing that households can do if they cannot get rid of the lead in their homes is to keep a close eye on it. Proper testing can make it easier to know precisely where to watch. Lead paint lurking under five layers of latex paint may be fine for years, and then start to flake off one day. People who can tell when the deterioration process has begun can take quick action to protect themselves and their household. Understanding that paint is more likely to chip or peel on surfaces that move or rub together, residents can watch closely for signs of damage around windows and doors.

Proper cleaning may help prevent paint dust from settling on the floor or on eating surfaces. Homeowners should avoid using dry cleaning methods like a broom, unless they can use a vacuum with a HEPA filter. They need to avoid dry sanding or buffing floors, especially on painted surfaces. Abrasive cleaning solutions and scrubbing pads can score paint off a surface and make the problem worse, so such products should not be used.

If residents notice that the paint is coming off, they may wipe it with a damp towel or cloth that they can throw away once they are done. Peeling or flaking paint is more likely to occur again, so wiping should only be considered a temporary response. This may be an indication that homeowners need to consider another approach, such as encapsulation or enclosure.

Further Reading

People who want to learn more about lead concerns and how it relates to their homes should review the following resources:

Lead exposure can be fatal if not identified and addressed in a prompt manner. So many health problems related to lead poisoning can be difficult to relate to a particular cause. As such, anyone who owns a home built prior to 1978 should assume that their home may contain some level of lead. Sellers are obligated to disclose what they know about their home’s lead status, but this cannot always serve as proof against the presence of lead in certain types of homes.

Testing and assessment is the best way for people to learn if their homes have lead, including where it is and how much is there. The simplest forms of testing may not cost more than a few hundred dollars. In exchange, people will have a much clearer idea of how lead could be affecting them. Some assessments can even help households decide what they should do with the results.

People should not wait until they have observed serious health effects from lead poisoning to request testing and consider lead abatement services. By that point, the consequences may be both severe and permanent. Instead, people would do better to consider their personal risk based on the age of the structures on their property, and schedule testing from a certified professional the moment they suspect an issue. For households that spend most of their time at home, the structure should be as safe as possible. Early work in lead source management could ultimately prevent a tragedy.