Tackling the Lead Paint Problems in and Around Our Home

Tackling Lead Paint Problems in Our Home

We live in an old house (by American standards!), which comes with all the character and charm and maintenance bills that one would expect.  And something I didn’t really think about beforehand: lead paint.  Our home was built in 1910, well before lead paint was banned (1978), and and the EPA reports that approximately 87% of homes built before 1940 contain lead paint.  Since it had been painted over many times, I wasn’t really concerned about it because everything I’ve read stated that it’s not a danger as long as you don’t disturb it.

So we didn’t worry about it, until we decided to refinish our old screen door. It is a solid wood old-fashioned door built specifically for the house and was painted white to match the house, but the paint was peeling in places and the screen needed to be replaced.  I thought about redoing it myself, which would mean sanding it before repainting it, but thankfully my sister advised that I should test for lead paint first. I bought these 3M lead paint test sticks which are really easy to use – just snap them and rub onto the suspected surface and if the stick turns red, you’ve got lead paint. The screen door test stick came up red in several places where the paint was peeling. Then I tested the back door – same thing!  Since I had a package of eight lead paint test sticks, I used all of them, testing areas of our home which the research had advised were the danger areas – windows and doors which get opened and closed a lot and any other areas with peeling or flaking paint, like the trim that got chipped during moving day.
I was very concerned at this point, because children age 6 and younger are most susceptible to lead.  Even low levels of lead can lead to behavior and learning problems, lower IQ and hyperactivity, slowed growth, hearing problems and anemia.  It can be transmitted through breast milk, and is harmful to adults as well (cardiovascular, kidney, and reproductive problems).   So I took Baby straight to the pediatrician and asked for a lead test.  Our pediatrician advised that lead tests are standard at the 1 year checkup, but she ordered an earlier one for us given the concerns of lead paint in our home.  The test came back showing elevated levels – not poisoning or even dangerous at that point, but a level at which the doctor was concerned because Baby had not yet starting crawling, which is when the levels are expected to go up.  Doctor’s advice was to damp mop the floors where Baby plays every single day, don’t wear shoes in the house, and use a doormat.


I bought a nice-looking bamboo shoe rack to keep our shoes by the door, and most visitors notice this and take their shoes off without being asked. (NB: When we have a party, I don’t ask people to remove their shoes, since it feels a bit unwelcoming and no one goes upstairs or into Baby’s playroom at those times anyway, and I just clean the floors the morning after the party). I doubled up on the doormats, for indoors using these machine-washable Turtle Mats (bought these in the UK years ago and LOVE them – 100% cotton and rubber) and then ordered a heavy duty natural coir doormat from Frontgate as our outside doormat.
I was worried enough about the lead issues inside our home, but it turns out that a lot of lead dust is brought into our homes from outside – especially if like we do, you live in an older neighborhood where the years of lead paint have built up in the soil, in the parks, in the playgrounds, etc. So using a door mat and removing your shoes at the door makes a huge difference. In fact, the EPA did a study back in 1991 that showed simply using a doormat and removing your shoes reduces the amount of lead dust and other toxins by 60%.
In addition to following the doctor’s advice, we also had our screen door and exterior back door removed and sent to be professionally stripped off-site, along with our bathroom cabinet doors. If you live in New Orleans, there are a number of places which do this (Ricca’s, The Bank Architectural Antiques, Strip-Ease).  We painted our doorway frames and other areas of chipping paint with a product called Eco-Bond, which is a primer that is supposed to bond to the lead paint and allow you to safely strip it, or paint over it.  We opted to paint over it because stripping our entire house would mean we’d have to move out.  This was a much easier option, leaving us the possibility to strip the lead paint at later time, for example if we decide to do further renovations which would require us moving out anyway.
Because another source of lead can be lead pipes in older homes, I also tested our water using this First Response Drinking Water test kit, which tests for lead as well as bacteria, pesticides, nitrites/nitrates, chlorine, hardness, and pH.  Luckily the water test came back negative lead and everything else except it was positive for pesticides!  We don’t drink our tap water in New Orleans, but we still use it for showers and cleaning and cooking. So now I am researching whole house water filters as well as filters for drinking water – eventually we’d like to move away from using exclusively bottled water.  But that’s a post for another time!
Back to the lead issues…next we decided to tackle the outdoors – our yard.  There were some areas right next to the house where nothing was growing and the first advice from a landscaper was that we had a gutter problem that needed to be repaired (which was true) and the excess water running along those points preventing things from growing (which turned out not to be true).  Another landscaper suggested that it may be due to high lead content in the soil from the years of peeling/flaking paint off the house (and probably dry sanding from painters not following EPA rules about lead paint removal).  I took some soil samples and sent them off to the LSU Ag Center which will do routine tests for $10 per sample and heavy metal tests (which includes lead) for an additional $5 per sample.  I divided our yard into 3 different areas: front yard, back yard, and right next to the house. The sample results were returned to me by both email and regular snail mail.  Our results showed that the levels in our front yard and back yard (areas covered by grass already) were normal to slightly elevated (normal lead levels in soil are 50ppm to 400ppm).  The area next to our house was high. I used this link from the EPA to interpret the results (see page 22), and the advice from the EPA regarding the level next to our house was that it was unsuitable for all types of gardening, children’s and pet play areas, and picnic areas.  This was alarming to say to the least.  We decided the best long-term solution was the most conservative one as well (aside from selling our home and moving somewhere without lead problems), so we decided to remove the soil entirely.  We measured out 6 feet all around our house and had 6 inches of soil removed (the advice I could find online recommended anything from 2 to 6 inches, so we went with the higher recommendation).  Your landscaper/gardener should know this, but if you decide to DIY, be aware that lead contaminated soil will have to go to a landfill, and not all landfills will take it so be sure to contact them in advance.  We then had 10 cubic yards of new high quality organic topsoil delivered (highly recommend Sugarland Garden Soil in the New Orleans area). And now we starting the fun part – choosing new plants for the landscaping!
This lead contamination journey has been educational (though somewhat stressful) for us, but we are happy that we’ve invested the time and money into making our home a safer place for all of us.  And further proof that our efforts have been worthwhile – Baby’s lead levels were re-checked and came back at the lowest levels measured.  Big sigh of relief and on to choosing plants for our lead-free garden :)



  1. 1

    Faith says

    Very informative article! I may have to try some of that lead paint sealing primer in my house. I have some chipped paint on some door frames that is likely lead based. I have tested some peeling exterior paint on my windows and found it to be lead based for sure. I might test my water too but am a little scared of what I might find out!

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