How To Identify Lead Paint

Updated: Mar. 11, 2024

Learn how to identify lead paint in your home to protect yourself, loved ones or tenants from potential health risks.

If your home was built before 1978, it is important to know how to identify lead paint. Exposure to lead paint by ingesting or inhaling can have serious health implications, particularly for children and developing fetuses. I have had lead paint identified and removed in several homes I have lived in or rented to ensure the health and safety of my family and tenants. Here to help you learn how to identify lead paint and what to do if you find it are Bill Carroll, Ph.D. from Indiana University and Shayne Pancione from Pancione Painting Plus.

About the Experts

Bill Carroll, Ph.D. is an adjunct professor of chemistry at Indiana University. The former vice president of industry issues for Occidental Chemical Corporation, he’s currently principal of Carroll Applied Science in Dallas, Texas.

Shayne Pancione is the owner of Pancione Painting Plus in Easthampton, Massachusetts. He is a certified Lead-Safe Renovator with over 30 years of experience in the painting industry.

What Is Lead Paint?

Lead paint is paint formulated with lead-based pigments or additives. A naturally-occurring element, lead was found to increase the washability, durability and strength of paint. With those additive qualities, it quickly became a popular ingredient in manufactured paint.

Lead paint has been used in the United States since Colonial times, but its dangers were not fully understood until the twentieth century. The use, sale and manufacturing of lead paint was federally banned in the U.S. in 1978.

How To Identify Lead Paint

Here are a few steps to take to identify lead paint.

Visually inspect

If your home was built before 1978, you can look for visible signs of lead paint.

Carroll describes an ‘alligatoring’ effect in lead paint that begins to resemble alligator skin as it “splits and cracks with age.” Pancione says lead paint “crackles as it gets older and doesn’t peel like typical paint.” If you have painted surfaces that resemble this, it could be lead paint.

Use an at-home kit

At-home lead detection kits are affordable, easy to use and available at most home centers. Kits often contain swabs or sticks that turn pink when rubbed on lead paint, however do have limited accuracy. “In many cases, there are layers of newer paint that have been applied, so a surface analysis might not show the lead,” Carroll says.

Pancione adds that at-home testing is fine to do, but if there is any doubt “you should rely on professional testing.”

Send paint samples to a laboratory

For accurate lead detection results, consider mailing a paint sample to an environmental laboratory.

Look for an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)-certified lab or one that participates in a quality-control program like the American Industrial Hygiene Association‘s Environmental Laboratory Proficiency Analytical Testing Program (AIHA ELPAT). For help finding a reputable lab check AIHA’s list of accredited labs.

Hire a lead paint inspector or risk assessor

EPA recommends having a certified lead-based paint inspection or assessment to determine the presence of lead paint.

A lead-based paint inspection tests a home’s painted surfaces. A risk assessment tests painted surfaces, dust and soil for lead and recommends either abatement (removal) or containment (encapsulation) of lead paint.

What To Do if You Discover Lead Paint in Your Home

If it has been determined that there is lead paint in your home, follow these steps to reduce the risk of exposure.

  • Do not disturb: Do not attempt to scrape, sand or remove lead paint.
  • Monitor children closely: Keep children away from suspected lead paint areas.
  • Hire a risk assessor: A risk assessor can make recommendations based on lab or inspection results, or can produce a full risk assessment report.
  • Hire certified lead-based paint management professionals: Abatement companies or lead-certified contractors can remove or encapsulate the lead paint found in your home.
  • Take precautions during renovation and painting projects: Hire a certified lead-safe contractor to complete home renovations or follow EPA guidelines if completing work in your own home that could disturb lead paint, even if encapsulated.

How To Remove Lead Paint

Lead paint removal is not a DIY project. Per EPA rules, you must hire a certified lead abatement company.

Safety Precautions for Removing Lead Paint

The safest thing you can do to protect your family is to hire a reputable, certified lead paint abatement company.

Plan to vacate your home during the abatement process. Safe air quality parameters will be verified by the abatement team when work is completed, at which point you can safely return home.

What Are the Health Risks Associated With Lead Paint?

Undisturbed lead paint in good condition is not inherently dangerous. However, deteriorated or disturbed lead paint creates airborne chips and dust, which are toxic if inhaled or ingested.

It takes very little lead exposure in children and developing fetuses to cause a host of serious health conditions, including nerve and brain damage. “It can stunt their growth and cause developmental delays as well,” Pancione says.

Children are also more at increased risk of ingesting paint chips. “Curiously, lead paint chips have a faintly sweet taste” that appeals to children, according to Carroll.

In adults, lead exposure can cause headaches, fatigue, hypertension, kidney disease or heart disease.

If deteriorating lead paint is left alone, it will continue to create dust and paint chips that over time can cause serious health conditions, even in adults.

Is It Safe To Paint Over Lead Paint?

It depends.

Lead paint that is not deteriorating, damaged or on a high-use or friction surface can be painted using encapsulate paint.

“Paint will prevent the lead paint from being exposed,” Pancione says, “It seals it off at the surface level.”

Encapsulate is not recommended for use on deteriorating or damaged lead paint, or on windows, doors and any other high-use or moving surface that could chip or rub and create dust.