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Testing for lead at home, explained

Answering your questions about lead risk, testing, and removal 

old house renovation
The best time to look into lead testing is before a significant demolition or renovation.

Living with lead—a neurotoxin that can cause low IQs, behavioral and learning issues for children, and high blood pressure, pain, or memory loss for adults—is something every homeowner or renter wants to avoid. But the unfortunate reality is that lead can be found in many homes we live in, buildings we frequent, and infrastructure we depend on.

Lead concerns can be as personal as discovering lead paint in beloved built-ins at home and as detrimentally widespread as water contamination from lead pipes in Flint, Michigan. So how much of a risk does it pose in your life? And if you think there’s lead in your home, what should you do?

Curbed spoke with three environmental experts about when and how to test for lead, whether you’re a homeowner or renter. In tackling this scary neurotoxin, knowledge is power—and proper testing and treatment can make it manageable.

So what exactly is lead?

Lead is a naturally occurring element found in small amounts in the earth’s crust. “Lead was used for years and years and years—there’s historical records that it may have led to the downfall of the Roman empire,” says Frank Lesh, ambassador for the American Society of Home Inspectors.

In more modern times it’s been used in paint, ceramics, pipes and plumbing materials, gasoline, batteries, ammunition, even cosmetics. It can be absorbed into soil and also move into groundwater. Federal and state laws and regulations over the years have helped reduce the amount of lead in air, drinking water, soil, products, and buildings.

Who is most at risk?

Children are at the highest risk, as their growing bodies absorb more lead than adults and their brains and nervous systems are more sensitive to lead’s damaging effects. Lesh points out that because children often put their hands and other objects in their mouths, it heightens the risk of ingesting lead dust or soil. Pregnant women are at risk, too, since lead exposure can carry to a developing baby.

Where am I most at risk?

Buildings are the primary concern for lead exposure. The U.S. banned the manufacturing of lead-based house paint in 1978, so any home built before then likely includes lead paint.

In many older U.S. cities, Lesh adds, the water supply line includes lead pipes. It’s not necessarily cause for alarm, as cities treat their water to mitigate effects from lead. “But what I recommend is to identify what the water supply coming into the house is,” Lesh says. With a public drinking water supply, you can ask for your municipality’s Consumer Confidence Report (CCR), an annual drinking water quality report which lists levels of contaminants found during testing, including lead. You can also reach out to the environmental health agency to make sure “corrosion control” for the water supply is in place. (It’s a coating of minerals and deposits keeping lead in pipes from leaching into the system, and what Flint, Michigan, lacked.)

When should I test for lead in my home?

Say you’re living in a home built before 1978. The best time to move ahead on lead testing is before a significant demolition or renovation, according to Alex Stadtner, president of environmental consulting firm Healthy Building Science. Another opportune testing time is if you find peeling, flaking, or chalking paint. If dried-up paint has wrinkly, alligator-like skin, there’s a good chance it’s lead-based.

Dust around windows or door frames, which pose the greatest risk in homes with lead paint, should prompt immediate testing when identified. Lead dust can end up on children’s hands, on their toys, and in the air. “When you breathe lead and it gets into your lungs, it’s absorbed into your bloodstream the easiest,” Lesh says.

Peeling paint or dust around windows and door frames in old homes pose major risks for lead exposure.

Lead paint on the exterior of the home can also contaminate the surrounding soil. Experts say your risk for soil contamination extends a few feet directly surrounding the home. If this is a place children often play, or you plan to plant a vegetable garden, it’s a good idea to test.

Finally, water pipes should be identified. Once you find the supply line, lead pipes will look dark gray and very soft, Lesh says. “If you have hard fingernails, you should be able to leave a mark in lead pipe if you run your nail over it,” he says. If you’re unsure, home inspectors are trained to identify this. And if you do find lead pipes, it’s a good idea to send a water sample for testing. Lesh also recommends running water from your tap to flush out the pipes, especially in the morning, as water sitting for several hours in house pipes is more likely to pick up lead.

How effective are home lead tests?

There are different types of home lead tests. Pens used to wipe across the wall and identify lead are “historically inaccurate,” says Thomas Hale, senior environmental technician with LCA Environmental, Inc. Other kits ask you to mail a paint chip or dirt sample to their lab, which he calls more reliable but can still result in false positives or negatives. Hale recommends researching lead labs yourself and sending samples directly to them. “You’ll get the most accurate readings that way,” he says.

When should I call a professional?

Sending soil, paint, or water samples to a lab is a cost-effective way to narrow down lead presence in your home. But in preparing for large renovation projects, where lead exposure may be a big concern, Stadtner recommends hiring professional lead inspectors, assessors, or technicians to collect samples of materials, paints, water, soil, and dust. If someone in the home tested with high lead-blood levels, it’s also time to call a professional.

Each type of material has its own testing method, and different states have different requirements on testing and allowable lead levels in the home. Stadtner recommends reaching out to state environmental or health departments, who will have a list of people certified to properly collect samples for analysis.

Lead paint could be hiding in otherwise lovely built-ins in historic homes.

What about renters?

A law enacted in 1992 requires landlords to disclose any known lead-based paint hazards to prospective tenants. If you’re a renter who suspects dangerous lead exposure in your home, you should alert your landlord immediately. Be sure to keep a paper trail of your requests, communication, and any identified lead exposure in case you’re dealing with an uncooperative landlord.

If your landlord isn’t responsive, Lesh also recommends reaching out to your local municipality or health department to see if there’s protocol in place for landlord lead testing. Your landlord may be required to test, or your municipality might test for you or give you a kit to test yourself.

What should I expect for costs and are there DIY tactics?

At-home tests or sending samples of paint, soil, or water to a lead lab aren’t prohibitively expensive. But a residential lead inspection or risk assessment could run anywhere between a couple hundred and a couple thousand dollars, according to Stadtner. “It depends greatly on the location, size, and condition of the building, as well as the initial reasoning for testing for lead,” he says. He suggests that if children are found with elevated blood-lead levels, “additional precautionary measures and testing should be performed.”

Until professional testing can be performed, or if it’s not financially feasible, there are some DIY tactics to reduce exposure. With suspected soil contamination, no food should be planted or grown in that soil, and children should never play there. Door frames or windows with lead paint should be operated as little as possible.

DIY remediation, either in removing door frames and windows or painting over them, is possible if the homeowner takes utmost precaution. It requires a thorough preparation, remediation and cleaning process that minimizes the risk of spreading lead dust. That means protective clothing, including a respirator, and plenty of water. When removing lead, you should always “work wet” and never use tools that could kick up dust.

To tackle lead dust, Lesh recommends soaking a wet rag in dishwashing detergent to mop it up, then dispose of the rag. Under no circumstances should a vacuum be used, as it risks releasing more dust into the air.