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How to Identify Lead Paint in your Home

Most of us know that Lead Paint is toxic to our bodies. According to the EPA, lead is a neurotoxin that can cause various health problems. It’s especially dangerous for young children, as elevated blood lead levels can result in developmental, behavioral, and learning deficiencies.

For pregnant women, exposure to lead has been associated with increased risks of miscarriage, low birth weight, and impaired neurodevelopment.

Although you might suspect that you have some lead paint in your home, there’s no way to be 100% sure without a proper lead inspection. How do you know if you should get a proper lead inspection?

Here are five steps you can take — and signs you can look for — to help identify possible lead paint

1. Know when your home was built

The sale of lead paint for residential use was banned in New York City in 1960 and across the entire United States in 1978. As a rule of thumb, if your home was built before 1978, you should assume that lead paint was used.

The data backs this up — according to the EPA, approximately half of homes built before 1978 have lead paint. And the older the home is, the more likely it is to have lead paint. For homes built before 1940, the chance of containing lead paint is almost 9 out of 10. You shouldn't rule out lead paint if your home was built after 1978.

Although it was illegal to sell lead paint after 1978, its actual usage was still in a gray area for many years. It’s a known fact that some builders and painters stored and used lead-based paint throughout the 1980’s and even the early 1990’s.

2. Recognize the Symptoms of Lead

Another way to identify lead paint is to recognize the early symptoms of lead poisoning. If you live in an older home and your family is experiencing symptoms, it’s very likely that lead paint is the cause. However, lead poisoning doesn’t have a single telltale symptom — it can present in many different and often nonspecific ways. Typical early symptoms of lead paint exposure include:

  • Headaches

  • Nausea and fatigue

  • Intermittent abdominal pain

  • Muscle pain

  • Loss of appetite

  • Diarrhea or constipation

  • Depression, memory loss, and personality change

  • Weakness, pain, or tingling in the extremities

Young children are especially at risk when it comes to lead. Lead exposure can cause developmental problems, and children are more susceptible to being exposed to lead from touching and ingesting paint chips or lead dust. Additional symptoms of elevated blood lead levels in children include irritability, learning difficulties, and behavioral issues.

3. Look for Signs of Damaged Paint

Lead-based paint is only hazardous if it’s damaged or deteriorating. Even if it contains lead, well-maintained paint is not an immediate danger to your health (unless it’s on a high-risk surface). If you’re trying to identify lead paint, start by looking for areas with damaged paint. That’s where your concern about lead paint risks should be the highest. Damaged paint produces lead-contaminated dust and paint chips that may be accidentally inhaled or ingested.

A common misconception is that lead paint deteriorates in a distinctive way, referred to as “alligatoring.” This describes a pattern of cracking paint on a surface resembling an alligator's scales. Alligatoring is not unique to lead paint; however, it indicates that the paint is old, and old paint is more likely to contain lead.

Signs of damaged paint (lead paint hazards) include:

  • Peeling

  • Chipping

  • Chalking

  • Cracking

  • Dampness

  • Bubbling

  • Teeth marks

Lead paint on certain “high-risk surfaces” is also considered hazardous, even when it’s not damaged or deteriorating. These surfaces are especially susceptible to wear and tear due to friction, impact, moisture, or chewing. For example, pay extra attention to paint near doorways and windowsills, which is likely to chip due to frictional contact. Places with a lot of moisture, such as bathroom and basement walls, are also more likely to exhibit paint deterioration due to steam or condensation. Other high-risk surfaces include baseboards, stairs, railings, banisters, and porches.

4. Check for Sub-Layers of Paint

Another sign pointing to lead paint is if you notice multiple layers of paint on surfaces, especially in older, pre-1978 buildings.

Stripping off old paint can be cumbersome, so some people opt to paint over it instead. Although you may see a fresh, clean-looking coat of paint on the surface, it might be worth looking deeper if you suspect or are concerned about lead paint hazards.

Especially in places where paint is already damaged or chipping, you might find sub-layers of paint underneath. These are old coatings that have been painted over during repair or renovation. For the same reasons as above, the older the paint, the more likely it contains lead.

In general, you should assume that paint is lead-based if sub-layers of paint are found on a surface in buildings constructed before 1978.

5. Home Lead Test Kits

If there’s a strong suspicion or concern about lead paint, you might consider buying an at-home lead test kit. Lead test kits use special chemicals that change color to indicate the presence of lead paint.

Although they are relatively quick and inexpensive, home lead test kits are not considered very accurate or reliable. You should never rely on these tests to definitively confirm or rule out the presence of lead paint. That said, you can consider the results in combination with the signs above to help decide your next steps.

The EPA’s Lead Renovation, Repair and Painting (RRP) Rule was established in 2008 to set performance criteria for lead test kits, including thresholds for both false positives and false negatives. While there aren’t any lead test kits that meet both criteria yet, the EPA has currently recognized 3 lead test kits with less than a 5% rate of false negatives. In other words, there’s less than a 5% chance — or 1 out of 20 cases — that these tests will give a negative result when the paint actually contains lead.

The three EPA-recognized lead test kits are:

  • 3M™ LeadCheck

  • D-Lead®

  • State of Massachusetts Test Kit (Note: only available in MA)

However, another limitation of home test kits to be aware of is that they can only detect lead in the outermost layer of paint. If you have multiple layers, lead paint that is covered up by newer paint will not be detected.

Highly consider getting a proper lead test. We are an EPA-certified firm and know how to deal with Lead Paint!

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