About lead paint
Lead poisoning is a serious health problem, especially for kids age 6 and
younger, and the primary source of that lead is dust from deteriorating lead
paint. But if you live in a house with lead paint, the problem doesn’t have to
paralyze your remodeling plans or make you wish you lived somewhere else.
Lead poisoning occurs primarily in homes built before 1978, the year that
lead was banned from residential paints. It’s caused by paint that’s flaking,
peeling, chipping and chalking, or by dust from a remodeling project. But if
you follow a few commonsense steps, you can control the dust and keep your
home lead-safe and worry-free.
In this article, we’ll show you safe
dust control techniques used successfully
by lead reduction experts.
Use them when you’re redecorating,
remodeling, making repairs or
otherwise disturbing lead paint.
In this demonstration, we plan to
repaint woodwork around old
double-hung windows, a significant
source of lead dust. The paint on the
old sashes rubs off as they slide up
and down. The paint on the sash
exteriors also tends to flake and peel
and fall on the sill or blow inside. Use
the same dust control and paint
removal techniques when working
on other woodwork, windows, walls
The three basic techniques we’ll
show—control the dust, work wet
and clean up thoroughly—will seem
cumbersome and slow at first. However,
they’re little more than the
basic dust control measures you’d
expect from any first-class painters
and remodelers. After you get used
to them, you’ll see that they’re pretty
much commonsense methods. If
your home contains lead paint, ask
any contractors you hire if they use
lead-safe dust control methods. If
they don’t, hire someone else.
Who should follow these procedures?
If you live in a home built before
1978, we recommend following these
procedures when disturbing paint for remodeling, repainting or making
repairs unless you know that the
surfaces don’t contain lead.
Most homes built before 1950
contain lead paint. If your home was
built between 1950 and 1978, it may
or may not contain lead paint. The
best way to check the surfaces you
plan to disturb is with a lab analysis
of paint chips.
A public health center will tell you
how to collect samples and where to
send them. The chemical lead test
kits sold at paint stores aren’t 100
percent reliable. A pro will charge a few hundred dollars for a lead inspection. Or
simply assume you have lead paint
and follow safe handling procedures.
Key Materials and Tools
- 6 mil plastic: (buy a
100-ft. roll, 8 ft. wide). One hundred
feet is a lot of poly, but you’ll be surprised
by how much you use.
- Duct tape: (60-yd.
roll). Buy the cloth-backed rather
than the all-plastic type because
you can tear pieces off the roll more
easily. Buy an extra roll so you
won’t run out.
- Medium and coarse
sanding sponges: (Photos
8 and 9).
- 2-in. carbide scraper
- Half mask respirator: Use P100 filters.
- Rubber gloves: Buy rubber
or neoprene gloves. Don’t buy
the flimsy type.
You can pick up all the above
items from home centers, hardware stores or online.
- HEPA vacuum: You can find HEPA vacuums online for as low as a few hundred dollars for consumer grade models, with heavy-duty models starting around $500 - $600. Some rental stores also carry them, and local public health
programs may provide them for free or at
a low rental rate. Don’t confuse true
HEPA vacuums designed for lead
with ordinary home vacuums that
offer “HEPA filtration.”
Phase One: Control the dust
Six-mil polyethylene (poly) plastic
and duct tape are a remodeler’s
best friends when it comes to catching
and controlling dust. Meticulous use
of them at this stage greatly simplifies
Spread poly over the floor and
completely seal the edges with duct
tape (Photo 1), especially if you have
wall-to-wall carpet. Once lead dust
gets into carpet, it’s virtually impossible
to get out. If you’re working in a
small area, say around a single window,
poly and tape an area at least
5 ft. beyond the edges of your work
Remove area rugs and as much
furniture as possible. Turn off the furnace
blower and seal registers with
poly and tape so dust can’t get in
them. In addition, keep windows
closed so the dust doesn’t blow
around. And send any toddlers and
pets off to the neighbor’s so they don’t
come barging in.
If you’re working throughout an
entire room or near a door, seal off
the door to contain the dust. Photo 2
and Fig. A illustrate a technique to
control the dust if you must leave the
room frequently. When cleaning time
comes, you’ll have to run back and
forth to the bathroom to dump dirty
water and get a fresh supply. To avoid
spreading dust, take off your shoes at
the doorway or lay a poly pathway to
the bathroom. In especially dusty
projects, consider keeping your work
clothing and shoes inside the dirty
room and changing when you leave.
When you’re working outdoors,
extend the poly at least 10 ft. beyond
each side of the work area and 10 ft.
out from the house. Add 5 ft. to those
distances if you’re working on the second
floor. And avoid working on
Wear Protective Clothing
Wear a long-sleeved shirt, long pants, rubber gloves and washable shoes.
When you’re finished, launder it all in a separate load.
- Paper-bootie shoe covers (Photo 13) are convenient because
they’re easy to remove when you leave the contaminated room. (They’re a bit
slippery when you’re walking on poly, though.) Some paint stores carry them,
but otherwise get them from medical or occupational health supply stores.
- The half mask respirator equipped with a P100 filter is essential
breathing protection (Photo 4), even though we’ll be working wet to avoid
- Glasses or goggles protect your eyes from falling debris.
All this gear can get
days, so try to work
on cool days or in
the morning. And
take a shower after
you’re done to wash
off all the dust that
sticks to you.
Phase Two: Work wet
Photos 4 through 9 show scraping
and sanding techniques for prepping
an old double-hung window for
repainting. Always spray the area with
water from a spray bottle before disturbing
any painted surface (Photos 4
and 8). (Shut off the power to electrical
outlets before spraying near
them.) When you work wet, the dust
will cling to the painted surfaces
rather than billowing out in a hazardous
cloud. Then you can simply wipe away the wet sludge. Working
wet will seem a bit strange and sloppy
at first. But scraping and sanding will
go just as quickly as when working
dry (Photos 6 through 9). And the
work site will remain cleaner. NOTE:
The major difference when handling
lead paint is that you shouldn’t use
power sanders or other power tools
that kick up dust.
Use wet techniques when prepping
exterior as well as interior lead paint.
Keep in mind that you don’t have to
remove all the paint, just loose, flaking
areas. If you want to remove all
the paint, compare the cost and time
of other options. You can remove
painted trim and window sashes and send them out to a professional
paint stripper. That gets the lead
out of the house. Or, if the cost is
high, replace the old wood with
brand new wood, whether it’s siding,
trim, window sashes or entire
If you use chemical strippers
yourself, be sure to wet-sand the
surface when you’re finished.
Although the wood might look
paint-free, lead residue usually remains in the wood.
don’t recommend using heat guns
or open-flame torches because the
lead in the paint can vaporize into
the air and be inhaled.
The best solution is to prevent
paint deterioration in the first
place. If you find and cure the
moisture problems that cause flaking
and peeling, you won’t have to
scrape and repaint every few years.
Back to Top
Phase Three: Clean up thoroughly
Making a room lead-safe
involves dealing with not only the
paint prep mess, but also any lead
dust that might have collected on
floors, sills and other areas before you
The washing and wiping process
isn’t as much extra hassle as you
might think, because you’d have to
clean dust off the woodwork and walls
before painting anyway. But for lead
paint, the technique is more rigorous,
so we’ll describe it in detail as well as
illustrate it in Photos 10 through 16.
Begin by vacuuming paint chips
and other debris with the HEPA vac
(Photo 10). Gunk sticks in cracks, so
dig it out as you go. Tuck a screwdriver
blade into a towel and run it along corners
and crevices to dig it out. We left the metal
weatherstrip in the window trough
because it was tight to the sill and the
paint on the sill was in good shape. But if the weatherstrip is loose or the paint around it is peeling, you’ll have to
remove it to clean the area well.
Wash the area with an all-purpose
cleaner. The key to successful cleaning
is to wipe in one direction to avoid
recontaminating clean areas. We used
heavy-weight paper towels and folded
them over after each wipe to avoid
recontamination (Photo 12). If you
use cloths and a bucket of wash water
(instead of a spray bottle), wring
excess water and shake paint chips
into a second bucket and change
water and cloths often. Usually you
can pour dirty water into a toilet, but
check with your local health department
to make sure it approves.
Rinse with a clean cloth and bucket
of clean water, using the same wiping
techniques as before (Photo 13). To
lessen the risk of contaminating other
rooms, we recommend completing all
cleanup before doing any repainting.
Remove the poly first. The idea is to
keep all contaminated sides toward
the middle of the floor, removing the
highest poly first, over the door, and
folding it inward. Continue the process, folding the corners to the
center (Photo 14), then roll up the
poly and seal it in a 6-mil garbage bag (order online; most home centers don’t carry this thickness). Normally you can put the bag in the
trash, but to make sure, check with
the health department.
Finally, clean uncarpeted floors
with the same three-step process you
used for the woodwork: Vacuum with
the HEPA vac, wash with the all-purpose
cleaner, and rinse.
REMINDER: Launder your work clothing
and shoes (unless you covered
them) separately from other clothing.
Wash your tools and respirator, throw away the respirator filters and
sanding sponges, then take a shower
to wash off all paint dust.
Did You Do a Good Job?
These methods work. If you follow
the proper procedures, you can
expect to leave your room lead-safe.
However, if you had a lead dust problem
before doing the work, if anyone
in your home has had an elevated lead
level in a blood test, or if you suspect
that contractors failed to use lead-safe
techniques, test your room immediately
after finishing. The best method
is with dust wipe tests. You can take
samples yourself and send them to a
lab for analysis. Contact
your health department or an accredited
lab for complete how-to instructions.
A professional lead abatement contractor can also do the tests.