Although lead is a metal that forms many useful compounds — and has been present in domestic settings for millennia — it can be extremely dangerous if a person ingests lead (and particularly dangerous for children). It's only since 1978 that United States government agencies have established guidelines for lead-safe homes, which is the year that the use of paint with lead-based pigments was banned for residential use. Homes built before that year are likely to have at least one coat of lead paint on interior or exterior surfaces, and the likelihood jumps from 24 percent to 69 percent for homes built between 1940 and 1969 and to 87 percent for homes built before 1940, according to data from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
Video of the Day
The lack of lead paint is just one characteristic of lead-safe homes. They also have lead-free drinking water; little to no lead in the surrounding soil; no metal cooking implements, furniture or toys that contain lead; and no lead hazards in the kitchen or bathroom cabinets. In short, they provide no opportunity for occupants to inadvertently ingest lead. Because of its ability to accumulate in the organs, lead is most hazardous for young bodies, and most lead-safe homes programs, which are typically administered by state and local organizations, reflect this fact.
Homeowners with children are well-advised to test for lead paint if they live in older homes. They can do this with store-bought test kits, although the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) recommends caution when using these products because they aren't always conclusive. They can also follow CPSC and EPA recommendations and hire a certified lead inspector, which is a prudent move if a preliminary DIY test is positive. The presence of lead in paint usually indicates that it's elsewhere on the property as well, given that lead paint degrades over time and turns to dust that may contaminate the soil.
Lead-safe homes are those with no lead in the paint, soil or water.
Where Lead Can be Found Around the Home
The number-one place to find lead around an older home is on painted surfaces, particularly interior and exterior walls and woodwork. Common lead-based pigments include lead (II) carbonate, which is white or cream-colored, lead tetroxide, which is bright red and lead (II) antimonate — one of the oldest lead pigments — which is an earthy yellow. Older houses tend to get repainted often, so it's likely that the lead-based paint is hiding under several coats of nonlead paint, but that doesn't necessarily make it safer because the lead can leach through top coats, and chipping and flaking of the top coats can expose it. When testing for lead paint, it's always important to cut through the top layers to expose the one on the bottom because that's the one most likely to contain lead.
When a house has an exterior coat of lead paint, there is always a chance of lead in the soil because exterior paint inevitably flakes off and turns to dust over the years. This puts children playing around the house — particularly curious toddlers who tend to put everything in their mouth — at risk of lead exposure. Homes served by lead water pipes, of which there are some 6 million still in use across the country, are also at risk of lead exposure, as are those with old metal faucets and other fixtures that may contain lead. The only way for property owners to know if there is a lead danger is to test the water, which can be done with home test kits.
Homeowners may also inadvertently bring lead-based products into the home. Some toys and children's jewelry that originates in countries that don't regulate lead contain lead-based compounds, and some foods, cosmetics and other products contain lead. A nonexhaustive list of such products includes:
- Some types of curry, masala and turmeric from South Asia, which may contain a lead-based pigment for coloration.
- Tamarind and chili powder from Mexico. They may contain lead tetroxide for coloring.
- Cosmetics such as sindoor, the bright red paste that adorns the forehead of many Hindu women to denote marital status, often contain lead pigments. Such cosmetics are often ingested by young children even though they obviously aren't intended for that.
DIY Lead-Safe Homes
Although residential lead abatement is generally a job for licensed specialists, there is plenty that homeowners can do to make their older homes free of lead hazards. Most strategies start with testing because in order to correct a problem, you first have to know you have one. Paint hazards are the easiest to identify using any one of a number of store-bought lead paint testing kits. When used according to instructions, any of these kits will detect lead on painted woodwork, walls, window and door casings and furniture. Few kits will reveal the lead concentration, but since there is no safe lower limit for children or pregnant women, any concentration is cause for concern.
You can also purchase test kits to detect the presence of lead in soil and water, and many are designed to make results available in just a few minutes, although you may need to send samples to a lab if you need more complete analysis. It's possible to clear lead from the soil by introducing plants that can suck out contaminants, such as sunflowers, corn, fescue and goldenrod. It's more difficult to eliminate lead from drinking water, especially if it originates in a municipal water system, but you can reduce the concentration by using only cold tap water, letting the tap run for a minute or two before drawing any and boiling it when you need hot water. Some reverse osmosis, distillation and carbon filters can also reduce lead hazards in water.
When it comes to introducing lead into the living environment by bringing home tainted products, discretion is the most effective remedy. Start by taking off your shoes when in the house to avoid tracking in dust from outside. Avoid purchasing off-brand drugs, cosmetics, dried fruit and spices, especially online, and be especially wary of bright red spices, such as cayenne or paprika, as well as cosmetics, which may contain lead tetroxide. Avoid inexpensive imported painted furniture, ceramics, cookware and children's toys, especially if you know it comes from a country that doesn't regulate lead as closely as the United States. Such countries include China, Vietnam, Taiwan, Peru and Ecuador.
When Do You Need Professional Help?
If you live in an older home or you're preparing to purchase one, you can't always handle all the mitigation issues yourself. In particular, you should consider a professional lead inspection or risk assessment in the following circumstances:
- You're about to purchase a home built before 1978.
- Anyone in the household, especially a child, has tested positive for elevated blood lead level or for lead poisoning.
- You live in a home built before 1978, and you're expecting a new addition to your family. An inspection or assessment is particularly urgent if the home was built before 1969.
- You're about to remodel or undertake a major home repair project that involves demolition and the possible release of lead dust.
- The home has never been tested, and you're concerned about elevated lead levels.
There's a difference between a lead inspection and a risk assessment, although both must be carried out by licensed personnel. Lead inspections are concerned mostly with the presence of lead-based paint, whereas risk assessments take into account the entire environment of the property, including paint, soil, water and lead-based dust. A lead inspection and a risk assessment can be combined, and in all cases, you'll receive a written report and a suggested abatement protocol.
Lead abatement contractors are also licensed and should work independently of lead inspectors and risk assessors to avoid conflicts of interest. In some cases, they may suggest improvements over and above those designated by the inspectors, such as installation of new windows or even complete remodels in the case of very old buildings. They may also recommend installation of water filters, demolition and removal of old exterior painted structures, such as fences and outbuildings, and isolation of contaminated outdoor areas.
Lead-Safe Homes Programs
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) makes funds available to state and local governments for lead remediation, especially lead-based paint abatement, for HUD-assisted properties. Helpful information regarding qualifications for financing is scarce on the HUD website, which is mostly concerned with qualifications required for inspectors and abatement contractors and the procedures they must follow. Similarly, the EPA website provides information on steps to follow for lead abatement and a link to search for local contractors but little information on financing. The same is true for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention Program. Local housing and health authorities, which are the ones that administer the funds, are the best source of that information.
An example is the Lead-Safe Homes program for the city of Oakland, California, which provides free risk assessment and painting services. To qualify for this program, one of the following must apply:
- The applicant is at least 62 years of age.
- The applicant has a physical disability that prevents him or her from doing the work.
- A child under 6 years of age lives on the premises or visits frequently.
- An expectant mother lives on the premises.
Aid is available only to households whose median income is 50 percent or less of the median income for the area except for families of six or more, which can have an income no more than 80 percent of the median for the area. Alameda County, in which Oakland is located, has a similar program called Lead Hazard Repair Funding that is intended for homes with a child under 6 or an expectant mother. This is also a low-income program; a family of two who wishes to participate must have an income below $87,700, and the income limits increase with the number of people in the household, topping out at $144,700 for a family of eight.
Qualifying low-income Massachusetts residents can identify their homes as lead hazards using a database available at Health and Human Services, and they can take advantage of a number of state-sponsored lead-safe housing programs, including a $1,500 state tax credit, low-interest loans due upon sale, transfer or refinancing of the property, refinancing help through the HUD 203(K) program or a number of local programs.
In Michigan, help is available to low-income property owners or tenants in Flint, Detroit and elsewhere provided a child under 19 with a sufficiently high blood lead level resides on the property, or the property is occupied by a child under 6 or a pregnant female. The best way to find financing information for de-leading your house in other states is to contact your state or local heath department or housing authority. Not all publish information on the internet.
- United States Environmental Protection Agency: Lead
- Gravita: Lead Pigments
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Lead in Foods, Cosmetics, and Medicines
- Lawn & Landscape: Plants Suck Lead From Soil
- International Pollutants Elimination Network: Lead Levels in Paint Around the World
- City of Oakland: Lead-Safe Homes Program (LSHP)
- Mass.gov: Learn about Financial Assistance for Deleading
- Michigan.gov: Michigan Lead Safe Home Program
- Mass.gov Health and Human Services: Lead Safe Homes
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention
Chris Deziel is a contractor, builder and general fix-it pro who has been active in the construction trades for 40 years. He has degrees in science and humanities and years of teaching experience. An avid craftsman and musician, Deziel began writing on home improvement topics in 2010. He worked as an expert consultant with eHow Now and Pro Referral -- a Home Depot site. A DIYer by nature, Deziel regularly shares tips and tricks for a better home and garden at Hunker and Family Handyman.