Ask The Painter: When Should I Worry about Lead or Asbestos?

June 23, 2010

Homes Built Before 1978 May Have Issues

If only we knew then what we know now. How many times have we heard that expression? As science and technology advance, we continue to find that materials previously thought to be relatively benign are, in fact, more harmful than we knew. In the housebuilding and painting world, we have known for some time that asbestos and lead-based paint are harmful and should be avoided. In fact, it has been over 30 years since both of these materials were banned by government regulation. But given that many homes are more than 30 years old, how do you know if either of these materials are present, and what should you do if they are? Let’s take them one at a time.

Asbestos is a naturally occurring silicate mineral. Because of its heat and chemical resistance, sound absorption properties, and high tensile strength, asbestos was used for many years in a wide variety of applications. While some older homes may have asbestos in the insulation, it is more frequently encountered in acoustic “popcorn” ceiling texture.

Asbestos that is not disturbed presents minimal risk to homeowners, however any activity that creates dust — like scraping the acoustic texture off of a ceiling — should only be performed by trained professionals using the proper protective gear and containment techniques. It should be noted that painting acoustic texture is not considered as “disturbing” it, and it can actually “lock in” the texture material. Also note, however, that painting a popcorn ceiling can make it substantially harder to remove the texture at a later date.

Asbestos was banned for use in construction in 1978, but existing stocks held by manufacturers and distributors were allowed to be sold. So it is possible to find some homes built in 1979 that have asbestos in their ceiling texture. So as a rule of thumb, any acoustic texture applied before 1980 should be tested before undertaking any activity that disturbs it. The testing lab we use has told us that here in Austin it is very likely that a home with acoustic texture ceilings built when asbestos was allowed will have asbestos in it.

Lead was used for many years as an additive in paint to speed drying and to improve durability and appearance. It was also banned by the EPA in 1978, but even before that, its use in latter years was diminishing. A survey entitled “American Healthy Homes Survey from October of 2008 reported the following:

  • 25% of Homes built from 1960-1977 had lead paint
  • 66% of Homes built from 1940-1959 had lead paint
  • 86% of Homes built from before 1940 had lead paint

Under new regulations taking effect in April of 2010, contractors who work on homes build prior to 1978 where lead paint would be disturbed if present (and it must be assumed to be present until proven otherwise), are required to be tested for lead either by sending samples to a lab, or by a Certified Renovator. Note that homeowners can use quick, inexpensive test kits available at most home improvement stores to check for lead, but the requirements on Contractors regarding testing are more stringent.

If lead is present, all work-for-hire (Homeowners who do the work themselves are exempt from the new regulations) must be done by Certified Renovators who will follow specific protocols that address protection, containment, and clean-up. Certification involves paying fees and attending training, and the protocols themselves will require additional time and materials, so expect to pay a premium for having this work done professionally. It is highly likely that many painting contractors will not become certified, at least initially, due to the expense involved in doing so. If you own a home built before 1978, be very wary of any contractor who is not certified and who does not ask about whether a lead test has been performed.

You can learn more about asbestos by going to http://www.epa.gov/asbestos.

You can learn more about lead by going to http://www.epa.gov/lead.

Copyright 2009 Jeff Stec

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