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Lead paint

Image of old flaking paintwork.

Lead can seriously damage human health, whether ingested or inhaled. However, severe cases of lead poisoning are relatively unusual in this country.

Until the 1970's, lead-containing pigments such as white lead were widely used in oil-based domestic and industrial paints. It was added in substantial amounts. Properties built before the 1970's, and where paint layers are thick, are most likely to contain lead paint.

Lead pigments were used in domestic paints for windows, doors and interior woodwork, and in protective paints for iron and galvanised metalwork. Note - the use of lead pigments in thin primer paints on some prefabricated domestic wooden windows continued through to the 1980s.

Water-based paints - emulsion paints - never contained lead, but distempers (an early form of whitewash, sometimes coloured) occasionally contained lead.

Paintwork containing lead pigment must be treated as a potential health risk if it is:

    ─ cracking, flaking or peeling
    ─ likely to be chewed by children or animals
    ─ being removed and disposed of during maintenance

If you have any doubts about whether leaded paints have been used in the property, you can test for the presence of lead. Test kits can be used to give a simple indication of the presence of lead and are obtainable from some paint retail and trade outlets. Modern household paints do not contain added lead, although it is still in use in some specialist and heritage paints. Some imported products of dubious origin may also have a lead content.

The Environmental Protection (Controls on Injurious Substances) Regulations 1992 control the marketing and use of lead paint (containing white lead) in the UK. The Regulations allow restricted use of lead paint in accordance with the European Marketing and Use Directive (89/677/EEC). Retail sale of all lead paints to the general public is prohibited. Regulations allow the use of lead paint, but in strictly controlled and special circumstances for the redecoration of Grade I and II* listed historic buildings.

The Chemicals (Hazard Information and Packaging for Supply) Regulations 2002 make it a requirement that the paint supplier labels the product packaging and provides a safety data sheet. Users of these paint products must comply with the Control of Lead at Work Regulations 2002. Trade users only may use paints containing lead pigments other than white lead provided they are clearly labelled and Control of Substances Hazardous to Health (COSHH) information is supplied. The principal use would be in paints for industrial steelwork.

If the paintwork is completely sound, consider over coating with a modern freshly purchased paint. If the paintwork has deteriorated, localised or complete restoration will need to be carried out. Ideally, pregnant women and children should not be present in any house or building where lead paint is being removed. Bystanders should be kept out of the room being redecorated and any connecting doors adjacent to occupied areas should be kept closed and/or sealed with plastic sheets. Remove furnishings wherever possible, cover surrounding surfaces to catch residues for subsequent safe disposal.

If removing lead paintwork, minimise non-essential occupancy in the work area. DO NOT USE paint removal methods that create dry dust and lead fumes. Do not sand paper, scrape or blast clean.

Minimise exposure to dust and debris by wearing protective clothing, gloves and a face mask fitted with a respiratory protective device whose filter conforms to EN143 P2. Paintwork should be removed with methods that don't create dust or fumes, using either solvent or caustic-based liquid paint removers, or a hot-air gun. Use solvent or liquid strippers only in accordance with their safety instructions, and remember that solvent-free, water-based paint removers are now available. Hot-air guns should only be used so that it will only cause softening of the paint film - do not burn the paint as this will give off fumes. The gun setting must be below 450 centigrade.

Final removal of paint residues to give a smooth surface should only be performed by wet abrasion with a waterproofed abrasive paper. Large flat areas of lead paint such as walls and ceilings are best treated with lining paper or wall coverings. DO NOT eat, drink or smoke whilst removing the paint. Take breaks away from the work area. Store protective clothing in a plastic bag between breaks in work, wash hands and exposed skin surfaces thoroughly before undertaking other activities especially eating, drinking, smoking or preparing food or drink. Thorough washing of the face and hands are imperative to reduce the chances of lead being ingested.

Immediately on removal, place all paint residues and debris in a plastic container, e.g. a plastic bag, and seal securely for final disposal with normal household waste. After work, the area should be thoroughly cleaned with water and detergent. Dust and loose debris should be collected using a vacuum cleaner fitted with high efficiency filters (P2 cartridge filter complying with EN143). Suitable vacuum cleaners conform to British Standard BS 5415. Some domestic vacuum cleaners comply with this standard and are available through electrical retail outlets; industrial cleaners are available through hire companies. Small amounts of dust/debris may be removed using a brush provided the waste material has been thoroughly wetted first. Disposable clothing, filters and brushes etc, used should be contained in a plastic bag with the other paint residues for subsequent removal.

After removal of lead paint and disposal of wastes, the exposed surfaces can be redecorated with an appropriate paint or coating system, used in accordance with manufacturers instructions.

PDF Planning to Decorate booklet (PDF)

HPA Lead Advice booklet (PDF)