Getting the Lead Out like Pros

One consideration in dealing with older buildings is that they may have lead paint on walls or trim.  The Centers for Disease Control website recommends assuming any house built before 1978 has some lead paint lurking around.

Why is this a problem?   Lead won’t do you any harm while sticking to the wall, but it has a nasty tendency to flake off into dust particles, especially when the paint is in poor condition.  Ingesting lead paint dust or chips is not good for adults and extremely bad for children.  Again, per the CDC:

 “No safe blood lead level in children has been identified. Even low levels of lead in blood have been shown to affect IQ, ability to pay attention, and academic achievement. And effects of lead exposure cannot be corrected.”

Naturally I wanted to test to be sure before deciding how to approach working on the outside of the house.  I was surprised and pretty annoyed to find that three local hardware stores I checked with carried lead testing kits not recommended by the EPA – honestly, what’s the point.  Finally I turned to Home Depot to pick up several packs of 3M™ LeadCheck™.  


The tester is a small plastic tube with two chemical reagents in plastic capsules inside.  Pinch to break the two caps, shake up the liquid and squeezed out the applicator tip and you are good to go.  I found that the plastic case tended to break faster than the inner capsules, and then the liquid leaks through the cardboard tube.  In future, I’d wear gloves to do this.  You apply the yellow liquid to the painted surface, wait about a minute and check to see if it turns pink or red which indicates lead.  See for yourself:


Lead.  The outer green coat of paint (which is not young) seems clean but the original white certainly is lead paint.  Since the green paint is peeling so badly, that white undercoat is pretty exposed.  I’d need to scrape vigorously to scratch off all lose or flaky bits and then give it all a nice coat of fresh latex primer and paint to seal in the under coats.  In future, good maintenance can keep this sort of exposure from ever happening again.



Here are my parents and I, all suited up for proper lead remediation (or possibly ready to invade an alien planet).

Professional contractors are guided by the EPA’s Lead Renovation, Repair and Painting Rule.  A homeowner taking on DIY repair work isn’t bound by the same regulations but I take lead paint remediation seriously so I followed the same procedures in prepping the outside of the house that a contractor would:

  • laying out heavy plastic (secured to the side of the house) to catch paint chips and dust;
  • “working wet” by spraying all work surfaces with water before scraping or sanding so that paint particles would be heavy enough to fall down to the plastic rather than blow away into the yard;
  • taking care not to track on or off the plastic surface;
  • wearing full Tyvek suits, gloves, goggles and HEPA filter respirators


These precautions were a little tedious but not at all difficult.  And since we were working during the cooler fall “edge” of the painting season, it was no hardship to bundle up a little more with a full Tyvek coverall.  Since we only tackled the front of the house this fall, I am making mental notes to make sure to do the other three sides early in the spring before it gets very hot.


The final result of prep is never very appealing, but here’s the wall after we’d scraped and sanded the heck right off – no dangerous flakes ready to separate.  From here we are ready to wash with TSP and then start in with the primer.  Check back soon for the new grey-scale house transformation.

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