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Study Shows Professional Remodeling Cuts Lead Levels

Written by Al Heavens on Tuesday, 28 November 2006 6:00 pm
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In the good old days when I bought fixer-uppers, I had to be really careful when stripping old paint from woodwork.

Many of these houses had been neglected for years before I bought them, but when they were young and owned by the well-heeled, these dwellings were treated to the best of what was available in the early 20th century, including, I'm sorry to say, lead-based paint.

In the mid-19th century, paint manufacturers began adding lead to paint as a pigment and to reduce drying time. In 1978, with three to four million children ages six and under with elevated blood lead levels, paint with more than 0.06 percent lead was banned for residential use in 1978.

I was not removing lead, because I was not properly trained to do so. In fact, I never found much of it anywhere in the house, but I decided early on that I would immediately stop if I came across any of it.

I took plenty of precautions, but both of my sons had elevated blood lead levels before they were six. We later discovered that the source was not our home, but the schools they attended -- a couple of them were in ancient church buildings.

We were lucky, but I've heard and read about children who weren't as fortunate as ours. And while federal efforts to address residential lead hazards since 1978 have reduced the number of children with elevated blood lead levels to 310,000 in 2002, that's still 310,000 too many.

I was reminded of the problem recently after receiving information on a recent study by the Remodelors Council of the National Association of Home Builders that showed that professional remodeling reduced lead levels in houses and actually improves existing conditions.

Now, I'm one of those people who latched on to the idea of using a special encapsulating paint on surfaces such as walls and baseboards rather than stripping the lead-based paint and creating dust that would never be completely eliminated, no matter how careful the professional lead removal technicians were.

The paint won't work on surfaces such as windows and door frames where wood rubbing against wood creates lead dust and wears away the encapsulating material very quickly.

The peer-reviewed Remodelors Council research is the most comprehensive study ever to look at the effects of common remodeling projects in homes with lead paint, the NAHB said.

The study measured the effects of activities like wall and ceiling removal, kitchen and bath work, and window replacement in areas which tested positive for lead paint, and found that the remodeling work reduced overall lead levels by more than 30 percent.

"The results confirm the benefit of professional remodeling in homes that contain lead paint," said Remodelors Council chairman Vince Butler. "We know that professional work not only lowers existing lead dust levels, but can reduce future problems by maintaining areas with lead paint to prevent deterioration."

Studying more than 400 samples, an environmental consulting group measured the amount of lead dust on floors and windowsills before and after professional remodeling work in five sites across the country.

In every instance, the levels of lead dust decreased except when common professional dust control practices were not used during sanding, like misting the surface with water or connecting powered sanders to vacuum cleaners with HEPA filters.

"I believe we take steps to keep dust levels down anyway when working in our clients' homes," Butler said. "Whether there is lead present or not, professional remodelers do not like to leave a mess."

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) has developed a list of renovation and remodeling practices to avoid, and most of those -- like open-flame burning or torching and the use of volatile paint strippers in an enclosed space -- are unusual for remodelers anyway.

"We didn't test most of those practices in our study because we already know to avoid them -- it's common sense," Butler said. "However, the study reinforces our stance that those who must use powered sanding or grinding tools in pre-1978 homes attach a HEPA filter to the exhaust, unless testing proves that lead is not present in the home."

NAHB continues to emphasize the practical methods that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recommends to avoid creating potential lead dust:

  • Mist surfaces with water before sanding or scraping.

  • Cover the area under construction with durable protective sheeting (e.g., a plastic or poly tarp).

  • Use barriers to keep dust contained to immediate work area.

  • Provide an exhaust fan from the work area to help remove dust and other pollutants.

  • Use an appropriate waste disposal method for any paints containing lead.
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