Identifying Lead Paint - A Homeowner's Guide

Lead paint chips on the floor.

A common home hazard that often goes unnoticed or unaddressed by homeowners is lead paint. Although its use in residential buildings was officially banned in 1978, it is important to consider that parts of a home built before that year could very well contain lead-based paint.

According to the United States Environmental Protection Association, “Peeling, chipping, chalking or cracking lead-based paint is a hazard and needs immediate attention. Lead-based paint may also be a hazard when found on surfaces that children can chew or that gets a lot of wear-and-tear.” Here are a few suggestions on how to determine whether or not you might have lead paint in your home and how to address it if you do.

Where to Look

While virtually any painted surface in an older home could have been treated with lead paint, there are a few particular places where it might be more likely to appear. These include any exterior surface, surfaces that are regularly exposed to weather (like windows and doors), interior trim, stairs, and railings. Also consider that older furniture and toys could contain lead paint as well.

What to Look For

Lead paint typically cracks and chips in a distinct “scaly” or geometric pattern. This is probably the best indication of the presence of lead paint. Bear in mind however, that oil and latex paints can crack, flake, and chip as well. A secondary indicator that you might be dealing with lead paint is that it rubs off with a chalky residue.

If You Suspect It’s Lead Paint

If you think you might have lead paint in your home, it is best to confirm it with a lead paint test. You can purchase a test kit for around $10 at your local paint store or big-box hardware store. There are a couple of different types of test kits available at this price, so be sure to read the label before you purchase it. The first, and my chosen method, is the disposable swab kit. One kit typically comes with two swabs, each of which contains non-toxic chemicals that turn a specific color when they come in contact with lead. This test yields results within one minute. If you feel uncomfortable interpreting the results of a swab test, your other option is to purchase a kit that allows you to collect a sample of the paint in question and send it to a laboratory for analysis. Typically these results will be mailed to you within a week of the lab’s receipt of your sample.

If Your Paint Tests Positive for Lead

First, don’t panic. Some experts agree that if your paint is not cracking, chipping, chalking, or flaking off and is not in a high-traffic or child-accessible area it is best to leave it alone and simply monitor it for future signs of damage. However, lead paint in heavy-use areas like windows, doors, stairs and railings should be addressed even if it is not clearly chipping off. The friction resulting from the regular use or operation of these surfaces can create airborne lead dust. In addition, any cracking, flaking, chipping, or otherwise compromised lead paint should be addressed immediately.

Options for Lead Paint Removal

Your options for lead abatement are similar to your options for any other potentially hazardous do-it-yourself project. Keep in mind that lead poisoning can cause serious medical problems for you and your family, even if they do not have direct access to your work site. The determination of whether or not to tackle the project yourself should come only after an honest assessment of whether or not you can safely complete the project and if it is legal to do so in your state or municipality.

This article contains important information to keep in mind if you do choose to remove the lead paint yourself. If you would prefer to sit this one out, there are professionals who are specially trained and certified in lead paint removal. To find a lead removal specialist in your area, call the Environmental Protection Agency’s National Lead Information Center at 1-800-424-LEAD (5323).