The Adventures of Lead Girl

Pretty much everything we sand, or attempt to restore in our house first needs several layers of paint removed. In some cases probably even the original coat can be located somewhere underneath those many colours.

Much like the rings on a tree stump, a historian might be able to tell you the exact age of the house during the different painting eras. Alas I’m much more ignorant.

But, one thing I have now learned is that without question most of that paint will be lead paint, and more than likely I have ingested and inhaled quite a quantity already.

Historically, adding lead to paint had numerous benefits:

  • It hastened drying time
  • Increased durability
  • Resisted moisture, thereby preventing corrosion
  • And helped retain a ‘fresh’ appearance.

All New Zealand houses pre 1945 would have been painted with lead-based paints. Thereafter it was very gradually phased out in favour of titanium dioxide. Nonetheless leaded paints were still used regularly up until 1970.

It wasn’t until 1980, when the government introduced legislation banning it, that all paints could be guaranteed to be lead-free.

So what’s the big deal with lead then? We also used leaded petrol up until recently, and that didn’t seem to do us, or our parents any harm.

The biggest problem with lead is that it mimics the behaviour of calcium in the human body causing it to be readily absorbed into the bones and teeth. In the human skeleton lead has a half-life of 18 years, so once absorbed it will stay for quite some time. This accumulation is also very difficult to treat.

At natural levels lead accumulation in the human body appears to have no lasting damaging effects. However, the use of leaded petrol and paint (now banned) introduced considerable quantities of the stuff into our environment. The amount of lead in our bodies has now increased over 500 – 1,000 times compared with the levels found in our┬áprehistoric ancestors. And still, this appears to have no damaging effects.

However, problems do start to appear at three or four times this new ‘natural’ level. And such increased levels of exposure are often caused by, or related to lead-based paints.

The primary symptoms and effects of lead poisoning include:

  • Decreased cognitive abilities
  • Nausea
  • Abdominal pain
  • Insomnia
  • Gastronomical problems including constipation and diarrhea
  • Headaches
  • Lethargy or hyperactivity

Children, under the age of six, are most susceptible to lead poisoning because they are still developing. Unfortunately for them, lead paint tastes slightly sweet, and because children tend to like peeling and nibbling flakey things this can be a problem in older houses.

So now that I’ve learned I need to take more care lest my brain turns to mush, I’ve been researching what precautionary measures I can take.

First stop involves visiting the safety section at the local hardware store. There I find shelves of sanding and spraying masks, some of which even take on an apocalyptic look for extra safety. However, upon examining the small print, they all state they are ‘not suitable for sanding on lead-based paint’.

Government websites are equally unhelpful. It seems no-one wants to take responsibility for advising on lead-paint removal, lest they are proven ineffective and get sued or something.

The best recommendation I have found is that we should be doing ‘wet-sanding’ to reduce the amount of dust, and then carefully washing and disposing the sludge afterwards. However, in a lead-sodden house this can be rather impractical.

So, it would seem that short of cunningly employing someone else to do our sanding, pretty much no approach we take can guarantee we don’t consume at least some quantities of lead.

However, by taking some basic precautions I reason we should considerably reduce lead exposure, and any dust that is inhaled, or ingested falls within the ‘safe’ levels.

Precautions include:

  1. Wearing a quality mask while sanding.
  2. Using a scraper rather than an orbital sander where possible as scraping produces larger flakes that are less likely to be inhaled.
  3. Covering hair.
  4. Vacuuming dust regularly. (Shaking dust cloth out the window apparently is not an acceptable means of disposal.)
  5. Establishing a quarantine area for contaminated clothes, and washing these separately.
  6. Finishing with a thorough decontaminating cleansing process.

Of course despite all this, I’m probably still inhaling small quantities of the stuff. But then I’m also living in a car-dense city and its fumes are likely far more damaging.

Nonetheless, next time I visit my doctor, I’ll ask about getting a lead test.

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3 Responses to The Adventures of Lead Girl

  1. Simon says:

    What about lead from soldering?

    I have to be careful when I use lead on the car. You’re not supposed to power sand it at all since it does put lead dust into the air. I also wear one of those apocalyptic masks when I use it.

    I also do my bit for the environment my collecting all the lead tyre weights I see on the ground. If they are left they get ground down on the road and you get even more lead dust about the place.

    Not sure what I will do with them though. Melt them down into one giant lead block!

  2. David says:

    I love the smell of soldering. That’s the flux though.

  3. Simon says:

    There is a large push towards lead free soldering these days. I think it is mandated in the EU now.

    Funny thing is everything I read shows no real advantage to this stuff. In fact it can cause other problems in soldered joints (tin whiskers – sounds like the name of a robotic cat!) and the flux contains some very nasty chemicals so you probably don’t want to be sniffing that.

    This is what happens when you let damn greenies run the world without them thinking of the consequences. Bad == ban with no thought of the repercussions!

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