Lead is a naturally occurring element found in many areas of the world; one of the larger Lead Mines in the US was found in Galena, Illinois. Lead, like asbestos, has many useful properties, but during its use over the last hundred years, both substances have been found to have significant health effects. Unlike asbestos, the latency period for Lead Poisoning, or the time between exposure and the onset of illness, is months rather than decades.

In the context of action to eliminate lead-based paint, the term “paint” includes varnishes, lacquers, stains, enamels, glazes, primers, and other coatings. “Lead paint” is defined by the EPA as a paint or a similar coating material to which one or more lead compounds have been added. Lead compounds are added to confer specific properties such as color, corrosion resistance or to improve the drying of the paint.

Lead compounds are primarily added to solvent-based paints or coatings; the lead content of paint can range from less than 90 ppm (0.009% by weight) from background impurities to over 100,000 ppm (10% by weight). When a manufacturer takes care to source uncontaminated raw materials and does not add lead compounds the naturally occurring lead content is usually well below 90 ppm.

How Bad is Exposure to Lead Paint?

Lead paint is one of the main sources of worldwide childhood lead exposure because it is still being sold in many countries and is in widespread use. Despite the well-known risks, more than 100 countries still lack binding legal limits on lead in paint. Lead-Based Paint (LBP) is also toxic for adults who are exposed by the pathway of inhalation or ingestion of lead dust.

Since the phase-out of leaded gasoline, lead paint is one of the most widespread sources of exposure to lead in children and adults. As lead paint ages, the paint starts to decay, fragmenting into flakes and dust that contaminate the indoor and outdoor environment. Paint flakes and contaminated dust are the most common causes of Lead Poisoning. The only way to determine elevated lead blood levels is to obtain a Blood Lead Level (BLL) test, which is required for entry into Elementary School. 

Although children ingest lead dust through hand-to-mouth activity, airborne particles of lead are a significant source of exposure for both children and adults. One primary reason is the improper cleanup of peeling paint and debris with brooms or shop vacuums, which, unlike HEPA vacuums, breaks the paint chips into smaller, respirable particles.  The removal of lead paint, for example during home renovation or maintenance of outdoor structures such as playground equipment, can also result in the release of lead-contaminated dust if it is not done in a safe manner.

Lead paint can remain a source of exposure for many years into the future because it does not biodegrade. Even in countries that banned lead paint decades ago, there are still many homes where lead-painted surfaces and children with elevated blood lead levels can be found. Soil on most parkways next to roads in the US is still contaminated with lead from exhaust fumes from the 1930s-1970s. The earlier a country enacts a lead paint law to prevent new applications, the better. 

What are the Current Laws Regarding Lead Paint?

The United States currently defines lead-based paint as any coating that contains lead equal to or exceeding 1mg per square centimeter or 5000 ppm. Lead paint was banned for residential use on December 31, 1977, by the USEPA, and more EPA, HUD, and OSHA regulations have followed.

The Department of Housing & Urban Development and the EPA enacted a lead-based disclosure regulation. This testing applies to “target housing” on the market that was built prior to 1978. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration has regulations regarding occupational exposure to lead in all forms, including paint, solder, piping, cladding, and other uses of lead.

More recently the EPA enacted the RRP rule, which requires any contractor doing renovations or repairs on a building built in 1977 or earlier to be certified, and uses “Lead Safe Practices”. Most contractors do take lead paint precautions seriously, so check with any contractor you are in negotiations with to make sure they are an RRP Certified Firm.

Both the USEPA and the State of Illinois require lead training based on the type of work being performed; it is important to understand the difference in the terms “Lead Abatement” and “Renovation, Repair and Painting” (RRP) because the regulations and requirements differ based on the type of activity.

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