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How to deal with lead paint during a remodel

With enough exposure, lead contamination can pose serious health risks to anyone. While children and pets are the most vulnerable, adults and the elderly can experience lead poisoning, as well. Due to housing booms in the early 1900s, many Portland homes were built during a time when lead paint was the norm. So what should you do when you want to remodel your home, but you’re concerned it may contain lead paint?

At Lamont Bros., we’ve dealt with lead paint while working on several older homes. As part of our remodeling process, we take into account the possibility of handling hazardous materials such as lead. If you’re concerned about remodeling your home when there’s a possibility of lead poisoning, don’t be. Even if your home does contain lead, there are several safety precautions a skilled remodeler can take to ensure your health and safety. 

In this article, we’ll discuss the risks of lead contamination in a home and how to safely work around it during a remodel. After reading this page, you should have a strong understanding of the process for identifying and mitigating the risk of lead poisoning. Specifically, we’ll discuss:

Why should I care about lead contamination in my home?

Up until the early 1900s, homeowners often used whitewash to paint their homes. While this lime-based paint served the purpose of protecting the homes’ exterior, it required constant touch-ups and fresh coats. Then, in 1918, the White House became one of the first structures to feature a groundbreaking new technology: lead-based paint. Durable, long-lasting, and with unparalleled color quality, lead paint seemed a promising new solution for the 20th-century homeowner. 

Lead paint is most dangerous when it is cracked and peeling. Photo credits

Lead-based paint enjoyed a period of immense popularity worldwide, even though it was a known health risk. By the 1950s, governments began recognizing the dangers of lead-based paint, and by 1978, The federal government banned all uses of lead paint in residential construction. 

Today, the Department of Housing and Urban Development classifies lead-based paint as a hazardous material. When inhaled or ingested in large enough quantities, lead affects the central nervous system, especially in young children. It can severely damage the brain, kidneys, and nerves resulting in developmental disabilities, cognitive impairment, and death. Lead poisoning poses the greatest threat to children under the age of six and can cause permanent mental disability. While less common, lead poisoning can also affect adults and the elderly, as well.

How can I identify lead contamination in my home?

If you’re hoping to remodel your home, one of the first steps is to figure out whether or not your home has lead paint. The good news is that it is relatively easy to tell for homes built after 1978. That’s when the U.S. government banned lead paint, so any home built after that shouldn’t pose a risk for lead poisoning. 

However, if you live in one of the many historic Portland homes built before 1978, there’s a high chance your home is contaminated. Don’t panic quite yet. Lead only poses significant health risks under specific circumstances. As a general rule of thumb, the better shape the paint surface is in, the less dangerous it is. 

Unfortunately, lead paint becomes hard and brittle as it ages. Chipping, peeling, or flaking lead paint poses the highest risk. It’s much easier for deteriorated paint to make its way into the body. Small children have been known to eat paint chips because they taste sweet. Beyond that, microscopic lead particles can make their way into the air we breathe. Currently, government regulations recommend treating any kind of deteriorated paint as a lead hazard in homes older than 1978. 

To know for sure if a house contains lead paint, you have to perform a chemical test. In the early years of lead containment, this often involved sending a paint sample to a lab to get tested. Today, the process is much easier. You can purchase a 3M testing kit that will tell you in minutes whether or not your house contains lead. 

What should I know about remodeling a home with lead paint?

First and foremost, you must leave remodeling in lead-contaminated areas up to professionals. Unless you’ve been trained in lead containment, you could seriously injure yourself, your kids, or your neighbors by trying to handle it yourself. 

The primary goal when working in a lead-contaminated area is to prevent the lead from leaching into the environment. Lead contaminants are most often spread during the demolition process leading up to a remodel. Moving, shaking, and tearing can release paint flecks and particles into the air and settle in dangerous areas. Air and groundwater contamination are both serious risks.

If not properly contained, construction activity can release lead contaminants into the home. This is why it’s important to hire a contractor who has a proven track record in dealing with lead.

Containing lead paint

One of the most effective methods for handling lead paint is to contain it in its place. Instead of removing it as one might expect, many contractors will cover the lead with thick, protective paint. This method keeps the lead paint from leaching into the environment without the costly process of removal.

Keep in mind that painting over lead paint is only a viable solution if the surface will otherwise be undisturbed. If the paint must be cut into, sanded, or otherwise disturbed, this method will not work. 

Isolation & Removal

During a home remodel, there’s a high chance that the construction activity will disturb some lead paint if it is present in the home. As a result, covering over the paint isn’t always a viable option. 

In cases where your remodel will for sure disturb lead paint, isolation is critical. Your construction team should fully isolate the work area from your living area. This means separating the spaces using airtight plastic barriers and separate air filtration systems. Even then, the risk of the lead contaminating your home is never zero. If you have small children, the safest option is to live somewhere else during the remodel. 

On the inside of the construction zone, the protective measures are vastly different. Any time somebody goes into the work area, they must first put on a full protective suit and wear a respirator mask. Materials that come out of a contaminated zone must be bagged and discarded according to hazardous material protocols. Since even microscopic lead particles can cause damage, everything that goes in or out of the work zone is considered contaminated. 

When dealing with lead paint, containment and removal is key. Photo credits

What to do if you plan to remodel a lead-contaminated home

While remodeling with lead paint is never a convenient process, there are some steps you can take to make it easier. If you’re considering a remodel and suspect that your home may contain lead, here are a few steps you should take, according to professionals in the remodeling industry. 

Use a lead test kit

When it comes to lead, simply knowing whether or not your home is contaminated goes a long way. Once you have a yes or no answer, you can stop worrying about whether your home contains lead and start planning solutions. Fortunately, lead test kits are available at most home improvement stores. 

Don’t disturb any areas that you suspect are contaminated

It may seem like a given, but it doesn’t hurt to clarify – if you think your home is contaminated, don’t mess with it. As previously mentioned, lead paint is only dangerous if disturbed. So, if you suspect that your home may contain lead, the best thing you can do is to leave it be. Sanding, sawing, peeling, or chipping lead-based paint are things that could release paint into your living environment.

Hire a lead-certified contractor

To ensure the safety of yourself and your family, it’s best to leave lead containment up to the pros. Fortunately, state regulations require that a contractor be certified to handle lead contamination when disturbing over 6 square feet of lead-based paint. If you’re concerned about lead contamination in your home, simply ask your contractor if they are licensed to work with lead. 

Ready to start remodeling your home?

Now that you know more about lead paint contamination and how to address it during a remodel, keep up your research! Read up on the process of remodeling your home so you know what to expect when it’s time to start designing! Looking for inspiration for your remodel? Check out our home remodeling portfolio, where you can find photos of other Portland home remodels.

Want to talk to a designer about your upcoming remodel project? Click the link below to get connected with our professional design team. We’ll help you navigate the process of remodeling your home, starting with designs and ending with a build you love!