AUCKLAND PAINTERS Your painting specialists since 1992

How to Safely Remove Lead Paint

removing lead paint with scraper

With the proper safety precautions, removing lead paint can be bad for your health!

The use of lead paint in New Zealand was common practice well into the 1960’s, and continued up until the 1979 ban on the use of white lead paint in houses. Though it is almost impossible to identify a lead based white paint from any other at a glance, it is a fair assumption to presume that any house build before the 1970’s was painted with lead paint. Whilst well maintained coats of lead paint do not cause an enormous risk, when it starts to flake or dust, the risk becomes more acute. After 30 years, coats of lead paint are likely to be getting old. What remains of it, and what risk that poses, varies.

Why can Removing Lead Paint be Risky?

Lead poisoning is caused by the inhalation of lead particles. Lead is not digested by the body, meaning that over time, lead content increases with extended exposure, with symptoms, gentle at first, slowly increasing in severity. What starts out with a change to sleeping patterns, tiredness and some minor stomach complaints can turn slowly into much more severe problems. The more lead particles that are inhaled, the more acute the lead poisoning.

Therefore, the removal of lead paint can be disastrous if not done correctly. Burning wood coated in lead based paint does not destroy the lead, but instead adds the lead particles to an acrid smoke, which is easily inhaled. Alternatively, sanding away paint quickly and efficiently creates a fine, dry, airborne cloud of lead dust, which is again, easily inhalable. Removing lead paint in either of these two ways can hugely increase the amount of lead inhaled, rapidly causing the onset of lead poisoning. Therefore, any project must be thought about carefully, and certain vital precautions taken to ensure that you are not exposed to the nasty, and potentially fatal, consequences of lead poisoning.

The risks associated with removing lead paint are not over when the dust settles. The immediate risk from dust inhalation may have passed, but the soil, carpet, or other objects upon which the dust settled are contaminated, and will release ingestible lead particles on disturbance or contact. Without proper disposal, the risk can remain for years after the paint has gone.

Personal Protective Approach

Preventing fine lead particles, contained in the resulting dust or smoke, from entering the airway is vital. Toxic dust respirators or dust masks are an absolutely essential addition to the tool box when removing lead paint, and must be worn at all times during the project. Dust will remain airborne long after the hard work has stopped, so the temptation to remove the stifling respirator must be resisted! If you are using a disposable dust mask, these can be effective, but only those with a double head strap. The double head strap provides a much closer fit, and reduces the movement of the mask when you are working.

Dust is not easy to control. Clothes, skin and hair catch dust incredibly well. Wearing a hat or covering your head will vastly reduce the amount of lead dust that congregates in your hair, whilst washing your hands and face before eating, smoking or coming into contact with others is a simple, but enormously effective way of preventing contamination. Gloves and overalls are also a good idea to ensure that the dust is contained, and not walked through the rest of the project, or into your vehicle.

It is also important to contain the risk. When you come to start the removal of lead paint, be careful about who is going to be exposed. In removing the paint, you are inevitably going to project lead into the air, releasing great quantities of lead particles that can be inhaled or ingested. It is therefore important that the fewest people are exposed as possible. Children and animals should not be allowed anywhere near the work site, and anyone helping or still in the building should take the same precautions as those actually performing the work. It is best, if possible, to completely vacate the building. This way, the risk to additional people is completely removed.

Prepare the Site – Inside Jobs

The work area, if not carefully cleared, will be covered in lead dust long after the job is complete. People should not be allowed to enter the work area until it is properly cleaned. Though the dust may have settled, congregations of it, layered on furniture, floors and even fittings, will pose a major health risk if ingested or disturbed in the future. Before starting a home lead paint removal project, clear down the area. Remove all furniture, curtains and other items on which the dust can settle.

This can be greatly reduced by careful and timely management of the resulting dust and debris. Dustsheets and drop sheets should be used carefully, providing a full cover for the room, tucked tight into corners and along wall edges. When painting and decorating, the use of drop sheets can be must less accurate, but to collect all the dust and debris created when removing lead paint; a tight seal must be created throughout the room. Dust must be regularly contained, bagging debris continually during the project. Secure plastic containers are perfect for storing the debris once cleared, preventing it from being re-introduced to the air.

Prepare the Site – Outside Jobs

When removing lead paint from external sites, the risk to health is reduced. However, this does not mean that the potential for contamination is any less. In fact, it is greater. To contain this, it is important that any doors or windows leading inside are closed, preventing from the dust generated from being blown inside, contaminating living spaces.

Secondly, when working outside, it is important to contain the debris. Dust sheets are equally important outside, whether tied below a scaffold platform to catch debris before it is taken by the wind, or clearing up the lead contaminated puddles after removing paint with high pressure water jets.

Methods of Removing Lead Paint

There are many methods for removing lead paint, and the scale and expertise will determine which is most suitable for your project. Traditional methods for home renovation, wet sanding and scraping, are effective, but labour intensive methods, which can be made safe using the precautions described above. Wet sanding vastly reduces the amount of dust thrown into the air, though as the sandpaper dries, the dust will return.

Machine sanding, using a disc sander or belt sander, makes the task much easier. However, due to the industrial nature of a powered sander, the dust produced is finer, and is also projected further into the air. Therefore, you must be even more disciplined about containing the risk. A toxic-dust respirator should be worn instead of a dust mask, and the area must be even more carefully prepared with dust covers and the removal of any furniture or soft furnishings that will collect the fine dust.

Chemical paint removal techniques can be used, but only on small, contained surfaces like doors and windows. Each chemical product comes with its own risks and hazards, and whilst good ventilation, googles and gloves are a good starting point for protecting yourself against harm, you must always read the exact warnings from the product information.

Removing lead paint outside is a little less labour intensive. Water blasting is a very good way of removing paint layers in external, well drained areas. This is the most inherently safe way to remove lead paint, but the debris field, although contained to flakes and not dust, must be carefully considered. Debris and paint flakes must not be left to contaminate the surrounding area. Forming debris collection points and carefully clearing up the drainage site afterwards is essential in preventing lead contamination in the area.

Post Job Cleaning

Collecting dust can prove an enormously tricky and unsatisfying task. But it is essential. Luckily, there are some easier ways to contain dust. Having the right equipment is always a big benefit, and powder sanders with inbuilt vacuum bags are the ideal tool for removing lead paint. Removing the toxic dust formed on contact hugely reduces the risk of inhalation, whilst containing the dangerous dust immediately, removing the risk of air disturbances from re-introducing the lead particles into the air.

On a smaller scale operation, dust can be effectively removed by hand. Wet sand the area to finish, ensuring that whilst the last remnants of lead paint are removed from the walls, the moisture on the sand paper reduces the resulting fine dust. A household vacuum, fitted with a suitable dust filter, will then be needed to a very close clean.

Disposing of the waste

Lead does not become less dangerous after its removal. As described, lead contamination can last as long as the dust aggregates remain. It is therefore vital that the debris collected is disposed of correctly. Inform the council before starting any lead paint removal project, as they will be able to assist with its disposal. Burning or binning lead contaminated debris will simply lead to the particles being released into the atmosphere, negating all the care and effort taken to remove it from your walls.

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