Lead is a toxic substance that can affect people of any age. It is especially harmful to children, pregnant women and unborn babies. Lead accumulates in your body, so even small amounts can pose a health hazard over time.
Some auto paints, particularly those on older vehicles, are high in lead and can be a health hazard.
There have been cases of children suffering lead poisoning from playing in soil contaminated by auto paint dust.
Vintage car enthusiasts and amateur car restorers who strip and paint cars in their own garages or backyards could be unwittingly creating health risks for themselves, their families, neighbours and pets.
The dangers of lead in auto paints
Lead enters the body when fine particles of lead in dust are swallowed, or when fumes or dust from synthetic enamels and lacquers from aerosols are breathed in. Dust generated by sanding and buffing is a major risk. It can settle in soil or household dust and become a constant health risk.
The use of high lead paints by commercial auto repairers and spray painters should be done in compliance with occupational health and safety regulations.
Lead in auto paints
Lead colouring agents have been used for many years in auto enamels and lacquers. The highest levels of lead are found in the orange, red and yellow tones, where concentrations of more than 20% are common.
The pigments used in these highly coloured paints are based on lead sulphochromate and molybdate lead chromate. They are opaque and can be ground into fine particles, making them ideal for the high-gloss paints used on cars. They are also durable and resistant to ultra-violet light.
For older cars, the refinish industry can only provide accurate colour matches to vehicles that currently have paint containing lead on them by using the same lead-based pigments. If you are using these products you should be careful when sanding-down old paints and when spraying with new ones. Some older cars may also contain lead auto-body filler.
Lower concentrations of lead are present in the greens, browns and beiges.
Lead driers and anti-corrosives
Auto paints may also contain lead in the form of lead driers (at levels up to 0.5% by weight). They are used on trucks and commercials, and in anti-corrosive pigments in some primers used on new cars.
Many of the paints sold in aerosol cans as touch-up paints contain lead. These spray packs are used by car owners to camouflage small areas of damage.
A major problem with these spray paints is that people often apply them to objects other than their cars, for example, to household goods, furniture and buildings. They should be used only for their prime purpose, that is, touching-up cars.
Keep yourself and your family safe
It is very important to keep young children and pregnant women away from the work area, and from work clothes, supplies, equipment, tools or containers. Do not eat or smoke in the work area. Store supplies containing lead, out of reach of children. Be sure to clearly mark all containers with safety information.
In the work area
Auto-paint work should only be undertaken in a properly equipped spray shop that has dust extraction, ventilation and water-wash spray booths.
At home, please follow these general precautions. Ensure your garage or work area is:
- adequately ventilated if using solvents
- contained to prevent dust spreading
- contained to prevent overspray from painting with aerosols
- easily cleaned, this means that carpets are not recommended as floor coverings in workshops. Plastic sheets are preferable.
Do not dry sand auto-paints that contain lead, as it produces a lot of dust containing lead. It is safer to wet sand, and appropriately clean sanded surfaces afterwards.
Use a particulate or air-purifying respirator that meets Australian Standard 1716. It should be fitted with a P1 (dust) or P2 (dust and fumes) filter, both of which capture small particles of lead. It should be worn when removing or spraying auto paints. The respirators can be bought from major hardware stores. Replace the filter regularly.
Wear protective clothing and eye protection. Wash your work clothes separately from the family wash, and shower and wash your hair as soon as possible after finishing the day's work.
All surfaces in the work place should be regularly wet dusted, not dry brushed or swept. Clean walls and windows at least monthly. Use a high-phosphate solution (containing at least 5 per cent trisodium phosphate, also known as TSP) or other lead-specific cleaning agent. TSP should be mixed at the ratio of at least 25g of 5 per cent TSP to each 5 litres of hot water. TSP can be bought from industrial cleaner stockists. Sugar soap that contains TSP is available from hardware stores and supermarkets. .
Note: Not all brands of sugar soap contain TSP and ingredients are not required on the labels—users will need to check the manufacturer’s website to ensure TSP is present.
Mop-down paved areas, garden furniture, verandahs and other places children can access after you have finished the job. This will help clean any dust that has escaped the workshop.
Vacuum only with cleaners equipped with HEPA (High Efficiency Particulate Air) filters. These are the only filters that can capture the small lead particles. Wet mop if you cannot obtain a vacuum cleaner fitted with a HEPA filter.
Dispose of waste properly
Dispose of waste materials containing lead and water contaminated after wet mopping according to State/Territory or local government regulations. The water should be placed in a strong, securely sealed container. Do not pour water down drains or on to the garden.
Testing for lead
WARNING: Colour-change test kits can give false negative and false positive results. The colour change is difficult to detect on dark-coloured paint surfaces.
You can screen for lead in your paint using either a colour-change test kit or portable XRF (X-ray fluorescence) equipment.
Colour-change test kits
Colour-change test kits for use by non-professionals are available from most hardware stores, paint or safety equipment suppliers and range in price from $25 – $100. A list of test kit suppliers can be found here: www.lead.org.au/clp/leadtestall.html
DIY-Sampling Lab Lead Analysis Kits
DIY-Sampling Lab Lead Analysis Kits are available from The LEAD Group either online (www.leadsafeworld.com/solutions/lead-group-diy-sampling-lab-analysis-le…) or by phoning (02) 9716 0014 or 1800 626 086. A LEAD Group kit includes equipment and instructions for sample collection of a variety of sample types (paint, dust, soil, water, toy paint, etc) and analysis of the samples by a National Association of Testing Authorities (NATA) registered laboratory, as well as a report with recommendations on what to do about your results.
Portable XRF machine
A portable XRF (X-ray fluorescence) machine (available to the public in Melbourne and Perth) has the advantage that it does not damage the paint surface and it gives an instant indication as to the presence of lead. However, it is a specialised piece of equipment, and that means you will have to hire a professional to operate it. You get a printout but they don’t interpret the results for you.
Two companies offer portable XRF testing. Samples can either be sent to the companies, or you pay for them to come to you:
Sampling Technologies in Melbourne
Ph. 1800 453 394
Portable XRF Services in Perth
Ph. (08) 9321 2830
Samples to be analysed at a laboratory can be collected by you, e.g. by buying a DIY-sampling kit; or by a professional (environmental consultant or occupational hygienist) who you pay to collect samples, have them analysed at a lab and to write a report about the results.
Analytical laboratories can provide an accurate analysis of lead present in a paint sample sent to them, for a cost of $25 to $100 per sample, but labs do not interpret the results for you. Only laboratory analysis can determine whether working on the paint is “lead risk work” which contractors must notify the state or territory safe work authority about, in advance. Use only a laboratory that has experience in testing lead and which participates in proficiency testing programs. Ensure that the laboratory is NATA (National Association of Testing Authorities) accredited.
The Yellow Pages lists names of laboratories under Analysts and names of Consultants under Environment and/or Pollution Consultants or Occupational Hygienists.
For all methods of testing for lead in paint, it is important to follow the instructions for use. Be sure to test all layers of paint—or at the least, the oldest layers. This is best done using paint chips that are removed at an angle to expose as many layers as possible.
As a general rule, test the bottom side of the flake as the older layers are more likely to contain lead. If no loose chips are available, test an area where many layers are exposed. The swab will change colour if it detects lead above a certain concentration (which varies according to the brand).
If the swab does not change colour it may not mean that there is no lead in that sample. However, if the age of your car or its maintenance history suggests that paint containing lead could have been used, assume that paint containing lead is present or have the paint tested by a laboratory.