I am concerned about lead. I know our house has lots of it.

Asked by Cari
Everett, WA

We have 2 children. Our home is in an ideal location, has a fantastic water view and a small mother in law cottage to the side of the property. In short, we really like the house and would prefer not to move. With two kids now, we need bedrooms! We can renovate and add space but I am concerned about the lead - I know our house has lots of it. I see our options as either renovation or move to another home so we can have proper living space. I think we would have trouble selling our small house in this economy so that makes renovation look good (I've got the funds and friends in construction who will accept barters) but with two small kids, my most important priority is to protect their developing brains. How realistic is it to renovate an old home and still protect my children?


Cynthia Phakos

Answered by Cynthia Phakos

Los Angeles, CA

Koffka Phakos Design

August 22, 2011

You are wise to be concerned about the lead content of your home before renovating.

Lead poisoning is the number one environmental toxin affecting children in the industrialized world.

History of lead in homes

Lead was used as a pigment and drying agent in "alkyd" oil based paint. Water-based latex paint made of acrylics was first available in the 1950’s.

  • 66% of the homes built before 1940 have lead paint
  • 50% of the homes built between 1940 and 1960 have heavily-leaded paint
  • Homes after 1960 to 1978 may contain some heavily-leaded paint typically found in wood trims and doors.

In 1978, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission lowered the legal maximum lead content in most paint to 0.06%, a trace amount.

You can have your home tested for lead paint by a certified Inspector or a certified Risk Assessor.

Lead poisoning from lead-based paints (LBP)

Lead-based paint can be ingested into the body by breathing dust particles in the air, or as in the case of children, by eating small paint chips or dust.

  • Lead can affect fetuses, infants, adults and pets; causing irreversible brain damage, retarded mental and physical development, reproductive problems and can cause high blood pressure.
  • Early symptoms of lead poisoning can be confused with other illnesses but can be diagnosed with a simple blood test.
  • Some communities have screening programs through the Health Dept. that are available to check children regularly.

Regulations for removal of LBP

In April 2008, the EPA issued a rule requiring the use of lead-safe practices which require contractors to be certified in LBP removal and follow specific work practices.

  • Homes and facilities not occupied by children under 6 years of age, were exempt.
  • In April 2010, the EPA extended the law to include all homes built before 1978.
  • All contractors are required to provide homeowners with the Renovate Right Brochure when doing work that affects an area with lead-based paint, and one should be mindful that they follow these practices.

The EPA now authorizes states to administer and enforce their own programs, and in March of 2011, Washington became the 11th state.

Washington, your state, has 2 LBP removal programs.

  1. If you want to remove the LBP in your house you are required to follow the Lead-Based Paint Activities (LBP) program. Companies are certified by the Department of Commerce and trained by an approved training provider to follow lead-safe work practices. All certified individuals are issued a certificate and identification badge and you may request to see this documentation before starting your project.
  2. The second program is for projects which disturb the lead-based paint, and therefore create dust. This program is the Renovation, Repair and Painting Projects (RRP) program and again the contractors are certified as well.

Washington state has more detailed information on these programs here.  

Removal and disposal of LBP

There are 3 aspects for the safe removal of LBP that contractors must follow:

  1. Contain the work area so that dust and debris does not escape.
  2. Minimize dust and fumes by avoiding methods as sanding, torching, heat guns with a temperature greater that 1100F. Mist areas before scraping. Wet strippers are preferred.
  3. Clean up thoroughly. Use a HEPA vacuum to clean dust and debris, wet wipe and mopping. 

LBP debris is not considered a hazardous waste and may be disposed of in C&D (construction and demolition) landfills, making the process less costly. The leaching of lead from the LBP debris was found not to pose significant threats to human health or the environment.

Remodeling your home in a healthy way

There are several ways to approach your project if you plan on living in the house during construction. Children are usually the reason that a home needs additional space and we have done renovations with newborns living in the home.

First, your addition could be designed in a way that does not affect your current home, assuming that you have space on your property to expand. This is also the least costly approach to an addition. The contractor can keep the new construction separate from the existing house and not break through til the addition is completed.

Second, if you are tight for space and need to add a second story this would be not only more costly but difficult to accomplish while living in the home, as you essentially have to bring the structure down through the first floor when adding the 2nd story. We have had several clients move into their guest house during construction and you could move into the mother-in-law structure on your property during the critical phases of the construction.

Another idea, would be to have all the lead-based paint removed from your house prior to the renovation. This would be a more expensive option.

Of equal importance is to select materials as paints, sealers, cabinetry etc. that are 0 VOC’s so that new toxins are not introduced with the new construction. During installation these materials are at their most toxic, as it is when the initial most harmful off gassing occurs. Verify with the lead-paint specialist what strippers they are using as that could introduce harmful fumes to your home.

Tips for construction are:

  1. create a separate pathway for the contractor to bring materials in and out of the home,
  2. find a safe place for your pets as they too can be poisoned by lead, and can track dust in the other areas of the house, and
  3. turn off forced-air heating and air conditioning systems during construction to prevent dust from spreading through vents from the work area to the rest of your home.

Alternatives to removing lead based paint

Some other solutions beyond removal for lead based paint include spraying the surface with a sealant or adding a layer of gypsum wallboard.

  • A short term solution would be painting over lead-based paint with non-lead paint as the lead-based paint may continue to loosen from the surface below and create lead dust.
  • The new paint will mix with the lead-based paint, and lead dust will chip off as the new paint deteriorates.

At my home, I had my walls finished with a new 1/8” plaster skim coat before painting, have replaced my trim and had my door stripped by a professional stripping company which I believe has taken care of the lead based paint on the interior.


For more information:

Read "Where in the Bay Area can I buy lead paint sealer/encapsulant (Lead Stop, Child Guard, LBC or Nansulate)? It's hard to find!" a Q&A answered by Bill Fry.

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