Lead in Your Property? Here’s What a Lead Inspection Expert Says You Need to Know

older home may need lead inspection

Your home is your safe haven, but unfortunately, it can also be filled with risk. If your home was built prior to 1978, it may contain lead paint, which can be particularly hazardous to young children.  

If you’re moving into a “new” home or welcoming a baby, you want to make sure your home is as safe as it can be. That’s why we reached out to Matt O’Donnell, owner of Bay Hill Environmental Lead Paint Inspectors. Matt shared with us what you need to know about lead-paint hazards and home lead inspections.

When to worry if you have lead paint

Paint manufacturers stopped selling lead-based paint to customers in 1978, but you may be wondering, “Do all homes built before 1978 have lead paint?”

“Any property built before 1978 has the possibility of containing lead paint,” says Matt, who has been helping homeowners in Philadelphia and Southern New Jersey since 2016. “You’re a lot likelier to have lead if your house was built in 1920, compared to 1970.”

According to the Environmental Protection Agency:

  • Prior to 1940 – 87% of homes had lead paint.
  • Between 1940 and 1959 – 69% of homes had lead paint.
  • Between 1960 and 1977 – 24% of homes had lead paint.

You’re most likely to find lead on windows and windowsills; doors and door frames; and stairs, railings, banisters, and porches. However, the lead paint itself isn’t the problem.

“Lead paint is not an issue unless it’s disturbed,” says Matt.

Lead paint on friction surfaces, such as doors, windows, floors, and trim areas, can create lead dust. This dust can easily be ingested by toddlers and young children.

“The example I always use is old wooden windows,” says Matt. “If all those components are positive, every time you open and close them, they scrape on the way up and on the way down. If paint chips don’t fall off, that friction potentially creates lead dust.”

Children can put their hands on the windowsill and then into their mouths, leading to the ingestion of lead dust. Lead exposure can have serious health effects, including damage to the nervous system and kidney damage, learning disabilities, attention deficit disorders, and more.

Lead paint warning signs

lead paint chipping on front door

Does your paint look like this?

Matt recommends googlinglead paint alligatoring” to see what deteriorated lead paint looks like on windows and doors.

“Oftentimes the paint has deteriorated,” says Matt. “Chipping or peeling paint, deteriorated paint, is really where you should be cautious.”

But when should you get a lead-based paint inspection? Give serious consideration to getting an inspection if:

  • You will be completing a home renovation project and your home was built before 1978.
  • You have children or will be having children and your home was built before 1978.
  • You’re buying a home and the home was built before 1978. 

“The more knowledge you have, the better off you’re going to be,” says Matt. “You’re not required to get a lead inspection when buying a home, but personally, if you’re a young couple with kids, you should probably know if there is lead paint present.”

What happens during a lead inspection

Years ago, lead inspectors would collect paint chips and send them to a lab for analysis. Today’s professional lead inspectors use devices, such as an XRF gun, to provide immediate results.

XRF gun for a lead inspection

Know quickly if your home has lead paint.

“It’s like a handheld x-ray machine,” says Matt. “What we do is we come to the property and using that gun, hit all the painted surfaces.”

The XRF gun identifies if there’s lead paint on a surface within a few seconds, but inspectors also collect dust wipe samples to identify lead hazards.

“Essentially, it’s like a baby wipe,” says Matt. “We wipe the floor, windowsills, or window wells with the wipes, and we send them off to a lab.”

The lab analyzes them to see if there’s any lead dust in the tested area.

“The combination of the XRF gun and then the lead dust wipes give you an understanding of where hazards are,” says Matt.

Bay Hill Environmental uses the XRF gun to test all the painted surfaces in the home. In a typical 3-bedroom home, Bay Hill Environmental will test approximately 150 components over an hour to 1.5 hours. Then homeowners receive a full report showing all the components with the results.

You may see DIY kits, such as the 3M Lead Test Kit, in your local home improvement store, but if you’re worried about lead paint in your home, you may want to opt for a professional test.

“The gun tests down to the bare wood or bare component,” says Matt. “If there’s 10 layers of paint on the wall, we’re going to go down to the bare wood. We know if it’s there or not.”

When to remediate your lead paint

a home expert chipping lead paint off a window frame

Know what you need to do if your home has lead paint.

The simple presence of lead does not mean a home needs remediation.

Lead is not an issue unless it’s disturbed, unless it’s a lead hazard,” says Matt.

Homeowners may opt not to remove lead paint if:

  • It’s intact, not chipping or peeling.
  • Children aren’t in danger of ingesting or touching lead dust.
  • The lead paint is in the attic or a place not frequently visited.

“If you’re not creating lead dust, then you don’t have to remediate it,” says Matt.

Other places you may find lead paint in your home

If your home was built after 1978, you won’t find lead paint in it; however, there are other places where lead might be present.

Lead in the soil

“In Philadelphia, they used to have these lead smelting factories back in the day,” said Matt. “The lead seeped into the soil.”

soil test for a lead inspection

Could there be lead in your yard?

Homeowners will usually find lead in the “bare soil,” and contaminants in soil can be hazardous, especially to young children playing in the yard. High levels of lead in soil can also be hazardous to homeowners who plant and ingest home-grown vegetables.

“To remediate and remove a bunch of contaminated soil is very costly,” warns Matt. “Oftentimes, homeowners talk about putting sod over it or putting mulch to really just cover up that bare layer, but you could still be exposing a child to lead.”

Suburban neighborhoods built after 1950 are less likely to have this type of contamination, but if you’re concerned about the status of your property, you should consider getting a soil test.

Lead in your water

Heartbreaking stories such as the Flint Water Crisis underscore the dangers of lead in your drinking water. This type of contamination may come from pipes or other places, both inside and outside your home. Lead in your drinking water cannot be found with an at-home test, so a water quality test for lead must be conducted by a certified lab.

Learn more about testing for lead in your drinking water from Eric Yeggy, technical advisor from the Water Quality Association!

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