clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

I found lead paint in my historic house

As homeowners, our job became spending money to prevent our house from killing us

We moved into our first house when our daughter turned 1. It’s a low-slung, deep-eaved Craftsman that’s 103 years older than she is. And almost as charming.
One of the things we loved most about the house were the built-ins—a signature design element of the period. Like all century-old houses, ours needed some work. Okay—a lot of work.
We replaced the dangerous knob-and-tube wiring that could have caught fire. We bolted the house to its foundation in case of an earthquake. At times we felt like our job as homeowners was spending money to prevent our house from killing us.
My daughter was oblivious to this, of course. She loved exploring its rooms, cuddling up in unfamiliar nooks, and pulling up to standing on new corners.
When we had been in our new home a year, I took our daughter to her two-year checkup. After drawing blood for a few routine tests, the doctor came back into the room. The level at which doctors consider kids to have “elevated” exposure to lead is 5 microg
I was very familiar with the health risks of lead.

Lead is a neurotoxin that can lead to low IQs and behavioral and learning problems, and has even been tied to an increase in criminal tendencies. The groups that are most at risk, due to the way our brains form, are small children and pregnant women.

I had reported on the 2014 crisis in Flint, Michigan, where lead in pipes poisoned the water supply for months, bringing the risk of lead to national prominence. But many Americans are exposed to lead every day by something that’s even more common than lead pipes: paint.

Beginning in the 1700s, paint—and many other household materials—were made with lead, a material that was known to be toxic. By 1978, new environmental regulations stopped the sale of lead paint, but the hazards remain.

Lead paint is extremely prevalent in older, historic houses—especially homes that haven’t been renovated. I figured we might have lead paint in our house, given its age. If the paint is in good condition, there isn’t much risk. However, when lead paint is deteriorating, you can ingest it.

We didn’t have any of the visible signs of lead risk, like cracking or peeling paint. A few days later I figured it out—the built-ins.  We hadn’t noticed the paint on our beloved built-ins flaking off in clouds of white dust.  Including the drawers that h
I called an inspector to come to our house with what’s called an X-ray fluorescence spectrometer.  He could tell us where lead paint was used—even layers below—and show us the surfaces where lead dust was present. The next week, while I awaited the result
Now the lead paint really had to go.

With test results in hand—the built-ins were covered in at least three coats of lead paint—we called a lead abatement team to give us an estimate. It would cost tens of thousands of dollars to strip, seal, and repaint all of the surfaces with lead paint on them. So we focused our efforts on friction points. The doors could be sanded down so they didn’t rub their jambs.

The built-ins weren’t cost-effective to save. We were disappointed—but we could afford to make these decisions. Renters, who are at the mercy of their landlords, don’t have much of a choice about what to fix... if they know that their families are being exposed at all.

During the Obama administration, health officials lowered the at-risk blood level threshold from 10 to 5 to help track, then treat, more kids being exposed. This was paired with funding to help detect and remove lead paint.

The Trump administration has since eliminated and weakened some of those grants and programs. Even Ben Carson, the secretary of housing and urban development, doesn’t seem to understand how the problem connects to housing. At a public event, he asked a team of abatement workers who were stripping hinges, “What does that have to do with lead?”

Lead exposure in children remains a major issue—especially for low-income families in cities in the East and Midwest like Cleveland, Detroit, St. Louis, and Washington, D.C. An investigation by the New York Times found that not only are families currently being exposed to lead in New York City’s public housing, but the city has also actively worked to discredit the inspectors.

My son is now a 1-year-old—the same age my daughter was when we moved into our house. I had him tested early to make sure he hadn’t had any lead exposure. He’s fine. And my daughter’s blood lead levels have also gone down.
As for our built-ins, we swapped them with a bar, some open shelving, and a pass-through. The cabinets and drawers are not the 100-year-old originals.   But they’re not going to hurt us every time we open them. My husband painted them himself with a paint

What to do if you suspect you have lead paint

The older your home or apartment is, the better the chances are that you will be exposed to lead—87 percent of all U.S. homes built before 1940 contain lead paint. But that doesn’t necessarily mean your home is dangerous. Inspectors can tell you which surfaces or rooms contain lead paint and also create a report that shows where you and your family are most at risk of exposure. Real estate disclosures usually include lead paint hazards. If you are a renter, your landlord should be able to provide this information before you move in.

If the paint is in good shape, sometimes all that’s needed is encapsulation, meaning sealing or painting over the older layers of lead paint. If the paint is chipped or flaking, or found in places that are frequently used, like hinges and windows, the more expensive abatement process is the best option. Our county’s public health department provided a list of accredited inspectors and abatement firms, and the EPA also has a resource center.

Additionally, if you or your landlord are doing any kind of renovations in rooms that may disturb the lead paint, lead-safe contractors should be used to make sure your home isn’t contaminated. Once our old cabinets were safely out, we chose Semihandmade’s unpainted Shaker doors that work with Ikea’s cabinet systems. My husband painted them with Sherwin-Williams SHER-WOOD KEM Aqua Plus self-leveling water-based paint using an Earlex HV5500 paint sprayer.

Longform

How to Avert the Next Housing Crisis

Longform

The Neighbors Issue

Longform

Bungalow Courts Make the Best Neighbors

View all stories in Longform