A recent column on exterior painting drew a couple of comments about the importance of recognizing and protecting against lead-paint contamination. The home we were writing about was not originally painted with lead-based paints, so special precautions did not apply.
We suggested that sanding paint defects to a feathered edge and water blasting were preferred methods of surface preparation. That’s absolutely true if lead-based paint is not present. But if you suspect you’re dealing with lead-based paint, extra precaution must be taken to avoid spreading the contaminant.
Use of lead-based paint was outlawed in California in 1978. Homes built before then, likely as not, contain some lead-based paint in primers, fillers and top coats. White lead was a common ingredient in paint before it was banned in 1978.
Lead is a highly toxic metal that can cause a range of health problems, including behavioral disorders, learning disabilities, seizures and even death. Lead poisoning occurs by inhaling lead fumes or ingesting lead dust particles. Young children are particularly at risk because they absorb more lead than adults, and their brains and nervous systems are more sensitive to its damaging effects.
(Note that the following information applies only to cities in the San Francisco Bay Area. While it’s advice worth looking into, we recommend that you check with your local authorities before beginning a job involving lead paint removal.)
Frank Zip, a San Francisco painting contractor, pointed out some of the pitfalls of prepping an older home for paint. He writes:
"A house built in the late ’60s or early ’70s is very likely to have lead primers or paint. It was common in patching materials as well. So if you have a lot of peeling paint, you may want to wet scrape first. Water blasting/power washing can blow the chips all over your yard, the neighbors’ yard, and down the storm drain. San Francisco no longer allows this practice unless well contained with netting and runoff collection."
Section 3407 of the San Francisco Building Code regulates work that removes or disturbs lead-based paint on pre-1979 buildings ("lead work"). When the code section was enacted in 1998, it covered only lead work on exterior surfaces, but, in 2004, it was amended to also include work on interior surfaces in most residential dwellings, including apartment buildings and single-family homes. (Exception: Lead work on interior surfaces in an owner-occupied unit is exempt as long as paint chips or dust do not migrate outside the dwelling unit.)
Under the title of "Removing Lead Paint Legally," the San Francisco Apartment Association published the following steps a homeowner should take when undertaking an exterior painting project where lead paint is suspected.
1. Restrict access: Unless the affected area is the only means of access or egress, restrict third-party access to the affected area. If access must be allowed, dust generation and migration must be controlled, using containment and barrier systems. It usually can be accomplished by using plastic tarps to wall off the work area and to catch debris. …CONTINUED
2. Prevent dust migration: The owner or contractor must take steps to prevent the migration of paint chips or dust from the work area by establishing containment and barrier systems.
3. Prohibited practices: Heat removal methods that char or vaporize the paint are prohibited. These actions produce fumes containing lead that are especially dangerous. Disapproved methods include open-flame torches and heat guns operating at about 1,100 degrees Fahrenheit. Also not allowed are: hydroblasting or high-pressure washing without containment and barrier systems; dry, manual sanding or scraping; machine sanding or grinding; or abrasive blasting or sandblasting without containment and barrier systems or a HEPA vacuum local-exhaust tool.
4. Clean up: After completion of the lead work, all efforts must be made to remove all visible paint chips and dust. Safe methods to remove paint from pre-1979 buildings include scraping, wet sanding and thermally softening the paint with a heat gun or heat plate. The thermal method must not char the paint (vaporize it). For each method, paint particles that are removed must be contained and properly disposed of.
Julie Twichell, community education manager for the Alameda County Lead Poisoning Prevention Program, also warned against the dangers of lead paint. Her organization offers a class in ways to safely prepare the painted surfaces of structures built before 1979.
We checked out the group’s Web site, where we found scads of useful information. The group also offers a HUD- and EPA-approved course for remodelers, renovators, painters, and maintenance workers doing painting and minor repairs. This class leads to a Notice of Completion in training for lead-safe work practices and meets the minimum training requirements for individuals performing certain activities in federally assisted housing, including Section 8.
The class consists of a one-day lecture and costs $130. That’s pretty good bang for the buck in our minds. Better yet, it’s free to owners (and their employed maintenance crews) of residential properties built before 1979 in the San Francisco Bay Area cities of Alameda, Berkeley, Emeryville or Oakland.
The bottom line is that when working on a home built prior to 1979, assume that there is lead paint lurking below the surface, and take appropriate precautions.
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