Most people know that there was once a time that lead (Pb) was a key ingredient of paint. Lead was also commonly used in the manufacturing of toys, pipes, and even gasoline in the 20th century. Years of absorbing exhaust from automobiles using leaded gasoline even contaminated soil, making it difficult for plants to grow. Most people also know that lead poisoning can be fatal in adults and creates environmental issues for plants, water sources, and pets and animals. Even a minor amount of exposure to lead paint can damage the central nervous system and cause everything from headaches to stomach and digestive problems. Tragically, a high percentage of the severe health problems associated with exposure to lead paint happen in small children.
What most people DON’T know is why lead was ever an ingredient of paint in the first place, or what additives replaced it once its dangerous properties became more widely known. As far back as the 4th century, lead was added to paint to change color and sheen properties. Artisans and clerics would add lead to various concoctions to create inks of different color and texture. As commercial painting began to emerge centuries later, lead was added to paint to speed up the drying process and add extra strength to the protective qualities of the compound. Only in the late 1970’s did paint manufacturers begin to acknowledge the truly toxic elements of lead and recognize how dangerous it was to continue putting lead in paint at all. Among other amazing changes and developments in paint chemistry, chemists began replacing the lead in paint with titanium or zinc, which helped with color presentation and the protective qualities necessary for both commercial and artistic paints.
The Legacy of Lead Paint in Commercial Painting
Even though regulations in the United States almost completely eliminated lead as a paint ingredient in 1978, an untold number of buildings still contain lead paint throughout the country, which poses a significant health risk to the people that work and live there. Some theorize that lead paint is actually only a danger once it becomes detached from its substrate and is ingested, leaving many homeowners to simply cover the lead paint with new paint and ignore the underlying issue. Unfortunately, removing leaded paint can be an expensive, timely, and dangerous undertaking, as stripping the paint or sanding it can lead to even greater exposure of the harmful lead. A process known as encapsulation is the most affordable option and essentially creates a watertight barrier on top of the lead paint to minimize exposure. Scraping, sanding, and using a heat gun to remove the old paint entirely is a more expensive, but more complete, solution.
There have even been a number of large civil lawsuits between municipal governments and paint manufacturers that once used lead in their paint. Many cities and counties are trying to recoup the substantial cost of removing lead paint from their locale from the paint companies themselves.
So what can a modern paint professional do when it comes to addressing lead paint on a job site? Here are a few simple suggestions for making sure that you and your crew stay safe while ensuring the client has a firm understanding of the danger that may be lurking on their walls.
1. Request a lead test when working in any house or building that predates 1978. While it might seem like an extraneous cost or a waste of time, the safest thing a paint professional can do when starting a job on or in an older structure is to know if lead based paint is present before starting. You certainly do not want to begin painting, only to find out later that the substrate is already coated with dangerous paint that you are now responsible for removing.
2. Educate and inform the client. If lead based paint is present, then the client should be advised of the dangers and a plan should be put in place to remove the paint. The last thing you want as a paint professional is the responsibility of not addressing a potentially long-term, dangerous situation for your client. Even if the client chooses the encapsulation method of addressing the lead paint (or chooses not to address it at all), you can limit your liability exposure by making sure – in writing – that the full scope of facts has been presented to them.
3. Protect yourself. From respirators to gloves, dealing with lead paint at all calls for diligence from professional painters. While a minimal amount of exposure may not seem like a big deal, the prevalence of lead paint is such that over a long enough timeline, this dangerous exposure can add up and have disastrous effects. Avoid potential health issues in the future by taking protective measures now.
Eliminating lead paint from every house, building, or structure is an impossible dream. There is simply too much paint and not enough money, time, and resources to properly and safely remove it all with any reasonable certainty. Modern paint professionals have a responsibility, however, to address lead paint correctly and completely on the occasion that they do cross paths with it. By understanding the potential dangers of lead paint and taking proper precautions, you can make the environment a better place, keep your clients healthy, and keep yourself in good health for years to come! Click here to learn about some of the amazing additives BYK is using to help create safe, environmentally friendly paint products for the modern paint professional.