Dear James: I am planning to remodel a 50-year-old house, but want to retain as much original character as possible. Most of the woodwork needs refinishing. It may have some old lead paint. What should I do? — Joe D.
Dear Joe: As your house is 50 years old, there is a good chance the paint on the woodwork contains lead. In the late 1970s, lead was no longer allowed to be used in paints in homes. Even if some of the woodwork was painted after that time, there may still be some coats of lead-containing paint beneath the top coat.
Interior paint with lead poses the greatest risk, but don't forget about the exterior paint on your home. When sanding or scraping off old, flaking house paint, you may inhale the dust, which may also contain lead. The scrapings and chips may also fall to the ground and introduce lead into the soil.
Although the paint in your home may not contain lead, always proceed under the assumption that it does until you have had paint samples tested for lead. Your local health department or EPA office can advise you about how to have the paint tested. The National Lead Information Center, reachable at 800-424-5323, can provide you with additional background information on this.
If old lead paint is not disturbed, it is not a serious hazard. For example, if the woodwork has four coats of paint and the bottom one contains some lead, you are probably better off painting the new coat over this instead of trying to remove all the old coats first. But if you have a dog or child who may chew on the painted wood, you should consider having it all stripped off first.
If you have already done much of the work or similar remodeling in a previous home and may have already come in contact with lead, consider getting blood tests of yourself and your children for lead. Lead poisoning can build up over time, so you may not experience any obvious symptoms at the initial lower levels.
People often wonder why such a dangerous chemical as lead was ever used in homes in the first place. Lead was an inexpensive and effective additive used to increase the opacity of paint so that a coat of paint would hide what was beneath it. It was also used in some clear varnishes as a drying agent.
If your paint test results show no lead, go ahead and start your remodeling project. It would still be wise to wear a breathing filter while you are creating much dust from sanding. Also, try to block off the work area as much as possible to minimize the amount of dust which your children will inhale.
If lead was found in the paint when tested, do not attempt the remodeling yourself. Don't think that a good breathing mask filter and vacuum cleaner will keep you and your children safe from lead dust. There are remodeling contractors with the proper expertise and equipment to work safely with old lead paint.
Once the work is completed by the remodeler, you may want to alter your cleaning procedures in the future, because there likely is some lead paint somewhere else in your home. Use a wet mop when possible, rather than a broom. Use a high-quality HEPA vacuum cleaner or a central vacuum cleaner that is vented outdoors.