How to Remove Lead Paint Safely
Special report for DIYers who need to know how to identify lead paint and remove it
You don’t have to call in expensive consultants to work safely around lead paint. Follow these commonsense steps to keep your home lead-safe and worry-free.
- Half mask respirator
- HEPA shop vacuum
- Paint scraper
- Putty knife
- Utility knife
- 6-mil poly
- 6-mil trash bags
- Carbide scraper
- Duct tape
- Medium and coarse sanding sponges
- Paper shoe covers
- Paper towels
- Rubber gloves
- Spray bottle
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 with lead paint removal tips and worry-free.
In this lead paint removal 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. Learn how to test if you have lead paint in your home.
In this lead paint removal 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.
Project step-by-step (20)
Who Should Follow These Procedures?
How to Identify Lead Paint
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. Plus: How to remove paint from wood.
Figure A: Create a Sealed Exit
For passage through a door, tape the entire perimeter of one piece of poly to the door frame and floor. Cut a slit in it, starting about 6 in. from the top and stopping about 6 in. from the floor. Then drape the second piece of poly over the first. These are the key materials and tools you'll need for this project:
- 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.
- 2-in. carbide scraper
- Half mask respirator: Use P100 filters.
- Rubber gloves: Buy rubber or neoprene gloves. Don’t buy the flimsy type.
- 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 the 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 cleanup later.
Spread poly over the floor and completely seal the edges with duct tape, especially if you have wall-to-wall carpet. Once lead dust gets into the carpet, it’s virtually impossible to get out. You could tape the poly to the baseboards, but be aware that it might pull off the paint when you remove it. 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 during lead paint removal. 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
Cover Door Openings
If you’re working throughout an entire room or near a door, seal off the door to contain the dust. Fig. A illustrates a technique to control the dust if you must leave the room frequently. Tape off doors and other openings to confine dust to the room in which you’re working.
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.
Push furniture that you can’t remove from the room to the center. Cover it with poly and tightly tape the edges to the poly on the floor.
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 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, even though we’ll be working wet to avoid raising dust. Buy this mask on Amazon.
- 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.
Phase Two: Work Wet
Always spray the area with water from a spray bottle before disturbing any painted surface. (Shut off the power to electrical outlets before spraying near them.) Wet down the window stop and other parts to be removed. When you work wet during lead paint removal, 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. 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 during lead paint removal.
Pry off the Stop
Score the stop/trim joint with a utility knife to prevent chipping. Then pry off the stop and remove the inner sash, the parting stop and the outer sash so you can strip the paint from the sliding surfaces. It’s often easier to replace the parting stop and the stop with new wood.
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.
Scrape the Sills
Scrape window stools and “troughs,” the exposed sill below the window sash, because they’re highly vulnerable to chipping and peeling from moisture and sunlight.
After scraping, wet-sand chalking or rough areas, and smooth chipped areas with a medium- or coarse-grit sanding sponge. The sponge does a good job of conforming to curves and reaching into corners with its square edges.
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.
Scrape the Sash Edges
Scrape paint completely from the sliding edges of the sashes and stops (or buy new stops). Work on a poly-covered work surface in the same room or on an extra layer of poly on the floor.
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.
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 started.
Begin by vacuuming paint chips and other debris with the HEPA vac. 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.
Wet Down a Paper Towel
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. Mix an all-purpose cleaner and water in a spray bottle and soak a folded, heavyweight paper towel.
Wash the area with an all-purpose cleaner, including the nearby wall. The key to successful cleaning is to wipe in one direction to avoid recontaminating clean areas. Beginning at the top and working down to help the lead paint removal task. The idea is always to push the sludge and residue downward.
We used heavy-weight paper towels and folded them over after each wipe to avoid recontamination. 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. 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.
Rinse with Clean Water
Rinse the entire project with a cloth and clean water, again starting from the top and working downward. Wipe horizontal surfaces in one direction. Refold the cloth to expose a clean surface after each wipe. Rinse the cloth in the bucket of water and change the water often.
Wet Down the Poly
To lessen the risk of contaminating other rooms, we recommend completing all cleanup before doing any repainting. Remove the poly first. Wet down the contaminated surfaces of the poly with a spray bottle. 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, 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.
Vacuum the floor with a HEPA vac, working carefully into corners and along edges. Be especially thorough on old wood floors with lots of cracks that hold dust.
Wash the Floor
Wash the floor with the all-purpose cleaner and a cloth. Reduce potential recontamination by moving the cloth so that the dirtiest edge is always the leading edge. Wring it out and shake paint chips into a second bucket. Change water often. Then rinse using the same technique.
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 of how to tell if its lead paint 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 identify lead paint instructions. A professional lead abatement contractor can also do the tests to tell if its lead paint.