Small Home Gazette, Fall 2009
Getting the Lead Out—and the Word Out About Lead
As with most homeowners, my wife and I have planned and completed projects each year we have owned our American foursquare home. This spring we decided to tackle a project that had been discussed since we moved in. With the same gusto we had for previous projects, we planned to remove the aluminum siding from our exterior window frames, soffits and fascia; strip the paint from the wood; repair holes or rotted material; and repaint the trim and window sashes in a more traditional Arts & Crafts color.
As many homeowners know, any home built before 1978 can contain lead-based paint. In fact, about two-thirds of homes built between 1940 and 1960 contain heavily leaded paint—and some paints from the 1940s and earlier contain upwards of 50 percent lead by dry weight. As our home was built in 1922, this was a major concern.
Prior to beginning the project, my wife wanted to have our one-year-old son tested for lead. His lead level came back 6 micrograms per deciliter—below the danger threshold of 10 for children, which can begin to cause learning disabilities, impair growth, and lower IQ levels. So as I began the project, I took precautions to avoid scattering paint chips by using plastic drop cloths and a gel paint remover to encapsulate the paint and to minimize dust by avoiding dry scraping or sanding.
Three weeks later, after I had removed the trim and paint from our home’s lower level windows, my wife asked to have our son’s lead level checked again. When I received the call from the doctor, I was stunned—his lead level was 29. This is almost three times the safe threshold for children. A lead level of 30 interferes with red blood cell production and begins affecting the nervous system. Elevated lead levels are just part of the concern—the length of exposure also matters. Generally, the longer the level is high, the more damage can occur. There is not enough room here to include all the repercussions, but extremely high levels—60 and up—can cause comas, seizures, kidney damage, anemia and death. The effect of lead exposure on adults is similar.
Immediately following his second lead test, several events occurred almost simultaneously—we began consulting various specialists to begin reducing our son’s lead levels; Hennepin County Human Services and Public Health Department contacted us to perform a mandatory lead inspection of the house; and all work on our home ceased. Within two weeks, a lead team from Hennepin County was in our house testing every surface for lead, using equipment that looked like oversized Star Trek phasers that can detect lead through every layer of paint on any surface.
Three weeks later, we received their report and remediation requirements. Among their requirements was to replace all the windows in the home, as they had at least one coat of lead paint. The other requirements were not as drastic and we were happy to comply with them. But we were simply stunned at the thought of replacing the original windows.
After the initial shock, we contacted Hennepin County in the hopes of reasoning with them—after all, our son had lived in the home for a year and his lead level prior to the paint removal was within normal ranges. It was clear that the cause of his elevated level was the process of paint removal—not the presence of paint on the window sashes, which was the concern of the county. A safer process during the continued work, we reasoned, should address the issue. Federal law, though, is quite clear—should a child test positive for elevated lead levels and lead is found in the home, remediation is required, regardless of the cause.
For us, there was no question that our son’s health came first. After discussion and research, my wife and I concluded that the lead paint could be safely removed from the windows without having to replace them.
This was an especially important consideration for the first level windows, which had a natural wood finish on the interior and matched the woodwork throughout the main level. What would be the point of saving the original sashes if the interior window patina was stripped or damaged?
The employees at the county were very patient with us—even offering grant money to offset the cost of replacement. When we continued our requests to remediate our original windows, they appeared a bit mystified as to why we would want to keep our old, wooden windows when we could get new aluminum or vinyl windows at almost no cost to us. After much discussion, they agreed to let us keep our original windows if we had the paint completely abated on all of them—22 total. By this time, it was mid-July, and the county had given us a deadline of August 22 to complete the work.
As I chose to perform much of the work myself, I was required to complete a lead safety course prior to beginning any work. The Sustainable Resource Center (SRC), a not-for-profit agency in Minneapolis, offers lead safety courses regularly. Among the techniques taught in the course are removal, containment and cleanup. Additionally, the SRC offers free lead tests for children and pregnant and nursing mothers, and free home lead testing.
Everything in our house had to be packed away or covered and sealed— nothing could be open to possible contamination during the abatement. We were required to contact the Minnesota Department of Health and submit our beginning and completion dates, as well as daily work schedules. We could not reside in the home once the work began, and could not move back in until work was completed and a second lead test registered no contamination. Thankfully, our neighbors, who were leaving on a three-week overseas vacation at the beginning of August, offered to let us stay in their home.
I bought the materials and in early August, began the work. I spent the first week removing the siding from the upper windows, soffits and fascia while wearing a full contamination suit, respirator and gloves. This process also included a call to Xcel Energy to have the power disconnected so I could work safely around the power lines. Each time I left the work site—often four or five times a day—I removed the contamination suit and work clothes in a designated “dirty” area in our house; cleaned any potentially exposed body parts; moved carefully from the contaminated area to a “clean” area to put on noncontaminated clothes; went next door to the neighbor’s house and directly into the shower. When I returned to the worksite, the process was reversed.
Rather than remove all the old paint, as I had originally planned, I simply removed the loose paint that came off easily by hand (not scraping or sanding). I filled cracks and nail holes with an epoxy filler which, when cured, could be finished with a knife and careful, pinpoint hand-sanding. This was a tedious process, but by the end of the first week, I had the exterior repair work completed and the woodwork primed.
I next removed all the window sashes and over the next week had someone else strip them off-site to avoid further contamination. All the paint was removed from the windows so there would be no lead dust created when they were opened and closed. This took a great deal of time, but being careful with the windows was critical. I covered all the window openings with plastic to keep out weather and critters. It was at this time the house looked its worst—a shell surrounded by scaffolding and covered in patches of plastic.
I began putting the windows back in place at the beginning of the third week. I also replaced the sash cords and repaired the hardware on each window. Once I had installed all the windows, I spent two days cleaning every horizontal surface of the house to prepare for the lead test. The Hennepin County lead team returned and took new samples for testing. We were soon informed that our house passed the lead tests. By Tuesday afternoon of the fourth week, we were allowed to move back into the house.
I wanted to share this story with owners of vintage homes to make them aware of the issues that can arise when dealing with lead paint. Should the city or county become involved as a result of a child’s elevated lead levels, the costs and complications will mount quickly. Even if a child is exposed to lead from an outside source, homeowners can be forced to remediate any lead in the home that might also pose a risk.
It has been six months since I first began the work on the house. I also ended up with an elevated lead level, and both my son and I have been receiving treatment ever since. Our son’s lead level as of last month had dropped to 15, and he has shown no ill effects. I attribute this to the early detection and quick action. He still has a blood test each month.
In retrospect, of course, there are many things I would have done differently. I would have taken the lead safety course before beginning any work. The information the SRC offers is truly valuable, and with it I believe we would have completely avoided my son’s elevated lead levels. My enthusiasm to begin work, lack of education and cavalier attitude toward lead containment was a dangerous combination.
If proper precautions are taken from the beginning, you can safely remove lead paint from inside and outside your home. And you can complete the work on a manageable schedule—without the deadlines imposed by the county. Three windows each week is a very manageable pace. This would allow most homeowners to complete the project during a summer or two.
Additionally, there are local, licensed contractors who will perform lead remediation should you not wish to tackle it yourself. If you choose to hire a contractor, confirm that the company has a current lead remediation or abatement certification, and check references.
We are happy that our project is done and love the difference it has made to the appearance of our home. We would do the project again with significant differences in the process, of course. Our home is safer for our family and more beautiful for it. For those considering any lead paint removal, I would be happy to talk with you individually about your project and give any advice I could to help you have a safe experience. My email address is email@example.com.
Minnesota Sustainable Resources Center (offers classes on lead abatement):
Locate lead abatement contractors and consultants at:
Minnesota Department of Health Lead Poisoning Prevention:
The Consumer Product Safety Commission publication, “What You Should Know About Lead Based Paint in Your Home”:
Housing and Urban Development steps for lead abatement and encapsulation:
Household Lead Dust Removal manual: