Ask the Authority - Lead Paint Article

Lead Paint

Question: I would like to fix up an old house, but the one I’m interested in has lead paint. Should I look elsewhere?

lead paint
Telescoping poles and plastic sheeting make it quick and easy to isolate work space from living space.

Answer: Like it or not, lead-based paint is a fact of life with old houses; most homes that were built in this country prior to 1950 (the year in which most paint manufacturers began rapidly phasing out lead-based paints) have plenty of lead paint. So if you insist on looking elsewhere, you might have to go as far as Europe (where they had the foresight to do away with lead-based paint decades earlier).

If it gets absorbed into the bloodstream, lead can pose serious health risks, especially to young children, so you’re smart to be concerned. Lead paint is indeed a hazard, but it’s a manageable one. The most important thing to know is that intact lead paint surfaces generally pose no threat to anyone. It’s only when those surfaces get disturbed, either through neglect or as a result of various remodeling activities, that you need to worry.

The culprit in most childhood lead poisonings is lead dust: The dust collects on the floor, children put their hands in it and they unknowingly ingest it when they put their fingers in their mouths (the same thing also happens with pets).

lead paint clean-up
Any cold air return duct located within the work space, should be sealed off to ensure that jobsite dust does not get blown throughout the house.

The key to working lead-safe is to minimize and contain the dust. "Generate the least amount of dust in the smallest space for the shortest time," is a popular slogan among practitioners who conduct training courses on lead-safe work practices.

Before I begin a remodeling project in which lead dust will be unleashed-by activities such as dismantling trim, removing plaster, or stripping paint-I use plastic sheeting and duct tape to completely isolate the work zone from any occupied areas of the house-- a set of telescoping poles, such as those made by ZipWall ( makes it quick and easy to erect dust partitions. This practice not only guarantees that all of the mess is contained, but also prevents inquisitive children from sneaking into the work space.

lead paint precautions
Tools that have well-designed dust-containment systems, such as this vacuum-attached random orbit sander capture lead dust at the source.

I try to organize my jobs to ensure that all of the demolition and other dust-generating activities get done up front, then I do a thorough cleanup using a high-filtration (HEPA) vacuum before I allow any barriers to come down. Oftentimes this requires paying extra for subcontractors to get their drilling or surface-prep work done ahead of time, but it’s worth it to avoid the hassle of making special dust-control precautions later on.

For exterior paint preparation, I roll out a 20 ft. disposable drop cloth to capture the debris. I always make sure all the windows are closed, and never do this work on a windy day. The only power tools I use have well-designed dust-containment systems that enable them to be combined with a tool-operated vacuum.

lead paint mask
A half-face respirator with purple (HEPA) filter cartridges is standard equipment for workers who routinely disturb lead paint. Do-it-yourselfers and trades people who don’t disturb lead very often can wear a comfortable N100 disposable respirator.

Anyone who’s exposed to lead paint dust needs respiratory protection; acceptable choices include a professional-grade, half-face respirator with HEPA cartridges or a less cumbersome N100 disposable respirator. A flimsy paper "nuisance dust" mask does not provide enough protection. Workers who have young children should be especially careful that they don’t inadvertently bring lead dust into their homes. Remove dusty work clothes outside and wash them separately, or, better yet, wear disposable coveralls during the dusty portion of the job.

If you want to learn more, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Office of Healthy Homes and Lead Hazard Control offers a wealth of information about lead-based paint on their web site ( A useful government pamphlet entitled "Protect Your Family From Lead In Your Home," is also available for free at many paint stores.

painter Tom Obrien
Tom O’Brien is a veteran restoration carpenter who writes frequently about construction practices and old houses.