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.
Before 1970, paints containing high levels of lead were used in many Australian houses. Exposure to lead is a health hazard. Even small amounts of dust or chips of paint containing lead, generated during minor home repairs, can be a health risk.
Anyone painting a house or doing maintenance that could disturb paint containing lead should avoid exposing themselves and their families, neighbours or pets to its hazards.
The recommended amount of lead in domestic paint has declined from 50 per cent before 1965, to 1 per cent in 1965. In 1992, it was reduced to 0.25 per cent, and in 1997 it was further reduced to 0.1 per cent.
The dangers of lead in house paints
Lead in house paint is a problem only if it is damaged or disturbed. Paint in good condition that is not flaking or chalking, or is covered by well maintained lead free paint is not a hazard in itself.
Lead can also be a hazard when it is on surfaces subject to friction or impact such as windows and doors, or on railings where children can chew it. High concentrations of lead found in garden soils in older residential areas can be due to residue from lead-based paint.
Lead-based paint is most likely to be found on window frames, doors, skirting boards, kitchen and bathroom cupboards, exterior walls, gutters, metal surfaces and fascias. It can also be found on interior walls, ceilings and areas with enamel paint. Pink and red primer both contain lead, so you should think twice before disturbing any surface which has had any of these paints applied.
People renovating their houses are in the most danger
Home renovators can create lead hazards without realising it. If old paint is not handled properly, lead dust and paint chips can remain in the home or on the garden years after the work is completed. Paint removal by blasting, burning, dry scraping, dry sanding and using power tools creates the most serious dangers because the particles are small enough to be inhaled or deposited in furnishings or carpet, making complete removal extremely difficult.
What you can do if you are concerned
The simplest way to see if those at risk in your family have been affected by lead in paint containing lead is to have a blood lead test through your family doctor.
Even if the blood test shows that your child does not have an elevated blood-lead level, a paint hazard could still exist if deteriorating paint is present.
You will also need to reassess the situation as children grow. Young babies have less hand to mouth activity than toddlers, who might place dust covered toys or soil containing lead in their mouths. Children who can walk might rub their hands along the walls, collect the dust from the chalking paint and later put their hands in their mouths. Other people's children might be put at risk when they visit, and pets might be in danger of lead poisoning from eating paint chips or dust.
The only way to be certain that your paint does not contain lead is to have it tested. For information about testing for paint containing lead, see Lead Alert – The Six Step Guide to Painting Your Home.
Avoid lead exposure
When renovating or doing maintenance that could disturb old paint, care must be taken to avoid exposing yourself, your family, your neighbours or your pets to lead residues. An experienchome handy man or woman can repaint a house containing lead if he or she takes the recommended precautions. These are outlined in our booklet Lead Alert – The Six Step Guide to Painting Your Home.
The guide provides advice on:
- how to test for lead-based paint;
- detailed instructions for covering the paint, or removing it by wet scraping, wet sanding, chemical stripping, or heat processes;
- the right tools and equipment;
- looking after yourself – using protective clothing (coveralls, booties, hat, gloves) and a respirator (meeting the requirements of Australian Standard 1716) when the work might involve lead-bearing dust or fumes;
- how to clean up thoroughly; and
- how to contain and dispose of all waste.
The guide also warns about the things not to do, for example:
- don't dry sand or dry scrape or use an ordinary power sander
- don't sandblast
- don't work outside on a wet or windy day
- don't use an open flame torch or high temperature heat gun
- don't eat, smoke or drink in the work area or with contaminated hands
- don't allow children, pregnant or nursing women in a house or area where lead-based paint is being disturbed.
If your renovation or maintenance job is big or complicated, or you cannot obtain the right equipment to undertake the work safely, call in professional help.
Even if you are calling in a professional, it is worth reading the guide to ensure that the tradesperson takes all the necessary precautions
What is being done by Governments?
The Department of the Environment has produced the booklet Lead Alert – The Six Step Guide to Painting Your Home..
Governments have also sought to control the amount of lead going into the environment by:
- limiting the amount of lead in domestic paints – since December 1997 the limit has been 0.1 per cent;
- placing controls on the disposal of lead contaminated waste; and
- informing home renovators and professionals about the dangers of paint containing lead, and providing advice on the safest way to deal with it.
- Lead Alert – The Six Step Guide to Painting Your Home
- More about lead
- Phone the Community Information Unit on 1800 803 772.