Dangers of lead in house paint
Before 1970, paints containing high levels of lead were used in many Australian houses. Lead is a toxic substance that can affect people of any age. It is especially harmful to children, pregnant women and unborn babies.
Lead-based paint is most likely to be found on window frames, doors, skirting boards, kitchen and bathroom cupboards, exterior walls, gutters, metal surfaces and fascias. It can also be found on interior walls, ceilings and areas with enamel paint. Pink and red primer both contain lead.
High concentrations of lead found in garden soils in older residential areas can be due to residue from lead-based paint.
When lead in house paints is a hazard
Lead in house paint is a problem only if it is damaged or disturbed.
Paint in good condition that is not flaking or chalking, or which is is covered by maintained lead-free paint is not a hazard in itself.
Lead can be a hazard when it is on a surface which experiences friction or impact, such as windows and doors, or on railings where children can chew it.
Paint removal by blasting, burning, dry scraping, dry sanding and using power tools creates the most serious dangers because the particles are small enough to be inhaled or deposited in furnishings or carpet, making complete removal very difficult.
People renovating their house are in the most danger. Home renovators can easily create a lead hazard without realising it. If old paint is not handled properly, lead dust and paint chips can remain in the home or on the garden years after the work is completed.
How to avoid lead exposure
You should reconsider disturbing any surface which contains lead paint or is covering lead paint.
When renovating or doing maintenance that may disturb old paint, take care to avoid exposing yourself, your family, your neighbours or your pets to lead residues. An experienced home handyperson can repaint a house containing lead if they take the recommended precautions.
The Department of the Environment has produced a booklet Lead Alert – The Six Step Guide to Painting Your Home. Precautions in dealing with lead-based paints are included in the booklet.
The guide provides advice on:
- how to test for lead-based paint
- detailed instructions for covering the paint, or removing it by wet scraping, wet sanding, chemical stripping, or heat processes
- the right tools and equipment
- looking after yourself – using protective clothing (coveralls, booties, hat, gloves) and a respirator (meeting the requirements of Australian Standard 1716) when the work may involve lead-bearing dust or fumes
- how to clean up thoroughly, and
- how to contain and dispose of all waste.
The guide also warns about the things not to do, for example don't:
- dry sand or dry scrape or use an ordinary power sander
- work outside on a wet or windy day
- use an open flame torch or high temperature heat gun
- eat, smoke or drink in the work area or with contaminated hands, or
- allow children, pregnant or nursing women in a house or area where lead-based paint is being disturbed.
If your renovation or maintenance job is big or complicated, or you cannot obtain the right equipment to undertake the work safely, call in professional help.
Even if you are calling in a professional, it is worth reading the guide to ensure that the tradesperson takes all necessary precautions.