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 and ceilings.
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.”
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 cleanup later.
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 zone.
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 breezy days.
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 raising dust.
- Glasses or goggles protect your eyes from falling debris.
All this gear can get hot and itchy on warm 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.
Wet down the surface again and scrape any loose, flaking paint, beginning at the top and working down. Wipe up the water, sludge and paint flakes frequently with a cloth (or HEPA vacuum), wringing it into an empty bucket. Scrape carefully because wet wood is more susceptible to gouging than dry wood.
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 windows.
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.
We 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.
Wipe the painted surfaces with the wet towel, beginning at the top and working down. The idea is always to push the sludge and residue downward. Refold the towel to expose a clean surface and wipe the surface again, including the nearby wall. Drop dirty paper towels and paint chips that you collect into a bucket. Eventually you’ll put them in a 6-mil plastic garbage bag and throw them in the trash.
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 started.
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.