Throughout the 1970s, the US government pushed to remove lead from paint and gasoline. Thanks to studies that showed the adverse health effects of lead paint exposure, the dangerous substance was phased out swiftly.

These days, you might assume that lead paint is no longer a problem, relegated to the pages of history books. However, it still persists, meaning individuals and employees may have to deal with its removal. Since lead paint poses numerous health hazards, you need to know how to remove it safely. This article will dive into the world of lead paint - its dangers, where you might encounter it, and how to keep your workers safe.

A Primer on Lead Paint

For many decades, lead was added to paint to increase its thickness, coloring, and durability. Lead-based paints would look brighter and last longer than those without it. This practice dates back hundreds, even thousands of years, since the discovery of lead. For much of that time, no one really understood the dangers of lead exposure. However, some texts from the Middle Ages cite some side effects of lead paint, including paralysis and epilepsy.

In 1904, paint manufacturer Sherwin-Williams cited a French study that indicated the harmful effects of lead, particularly for painters. However, the study also revealed that residents of households with lead paint were also at risk. Despite these warnings, lead paint persisted, although some manufacturers started phasing it out for safer alternatives. Most homes and buildings painted in the mid-20th century used lead paint, partly due to lobbying efforts by the lead industry.

By 1971, the health effects were too significant to ignore, particularly because they affected children the most. Congress banned lead paint for all government construction in 1971, then the Consumer Products Safety Commission issued strict regulations in 1978, effectively removing lead paint from all products.

The Dangers of Lead Paint Exposure

The biggest issue with lead poisoning is that it takes a long time to build up in the body. Even repeated exposure may not yield immediate signs and symptoms, meaning that people could have elevated lead levels and not be aware of them. Once lead poisoning does reach a critical mass, it can lead to various health issues, such as:

  • Vomiting
  • Constipation
  • Irritability
  • Stomach Cramps
  • Weight Loss
  • Sluggishness and Fatigue
  • Hearing Loss
  • Seizures

In children, lead exposure can also lead to learning difficulties and neurological conditions. Another significant problem is that any damage caused by lead poisoning is permanent. While treatments can help mitigate various side effects, nothing can cure them.

How Does Lead Transfer from Paint to Your Body?

Since lead is mixed in with the paint, you may assume that it's hard to get poisoned from it. Unfortunately, lead is not like other metals in that it doesn't take much for it to transfer to your skin and bloodstream. The primary danger comes from cracked and peeling paint. Over time, the paint turns to dust, which you can breathe in easily. Touching lead paint can also be harmful, especially if you don't wash your hands immediately afterward. For example, if you touch lead paint and then eat food, you can ingest the metal particles. Even worse, once lead is in your body, it doesn't get flushed out. Instead, it settles into your organs and bones, building up and leaching into your bloodstream for years.

Which Industries are Exposed to Lead Paint the Most?

Although most lead paint exists in residential homes, workers in various industries can be exposed regularly. Without proper safety procedures and protective equipment, employees can develop lead poisoning. Here are the most at-risk industries for lead paint:

  • Contractors and Remodelers - Around 24 percent of homes built between 1960 and 1977 have lead paint, and that number only goes up as the homes get older. So, if a contractor or remodeler is working on a pre-1978 house, there's a good chance that it has lead paint. In many cases, homeowners simply painted over the original layers instead of removing them. So, tearing down walls can create a lot of lead dust.
  • Construction Workers - Any projects that involve demolition of an old home can cause lead paint exposure. Many older houses also have lead pipes and fittings, further increasing the risk.
  • House Painters - As we mentioned, many homeowners in the past just covered lead paint with a fresh coat (or wallpaper). House painters can be exposed to that lead when coming to repaint a home's interior or exterior.

Regulations Regarding Lead Paint Removal

All professional contracting, construction, and remodeling businesses must be certified in lead paint removal by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The EPA has a Lead Renovation, Repair, and Painting Program (RRP) that all businesses and employees must follow. You can find out more about the RRP program here, but here are some critical points within it:

  • Firms must provide information and documentation regarding lead-based paint to their clients before starting work.
  • All employees must be certified before removing paint.
  • All workers must use the correct personal protective equipment (PPE) while on the job.
  • The firm must use proper containment methods, such as HEPA-rated dust vacuums and exhaust systems for all machinery. For example, electric sanders need a vacuum attachment to collect dust as it becomes airborne.
  • Firms must check for lead levels once the project is complete.

OSHA Guidelines for Lead Paint Removal

The Occupational Health and Safety Administration also has strict guidelines regarding lead paint removal (and lead exposure in general). Companies must receive an OSHA lead paint certification before starting work. OSHA's policies include:

  • The permissible exposure limit (PEL) of lead is 50 micrograms per cubic foot of air over an eight-hour period. However, the action level (AL) is only 30 micrograms per cubic foot. If a job site has a concentration lower than the AL, employers do not have to follow the lead safety guidelines.
  • All employees must practice safe hygiene protocols, such as washing hands and taking a shower before leaving a work site.
  • Employers must provide workers with sufficient PPE, including respirators where necessary.
  • Any employees exposed to high lead concentrations must participate in a medical surveillance program to ensure they don't experience lead poisoning.
  • Employers must document everything, from lead concentrations to worker test results and submit them to OSHA.

Overall, the OSHA lead paint certification program ensures that workers are not exposed to dangerous lead levels. This certification also ensures that civilians (i.e., homeowners, students, teachers) are not exposed to dangerous levels of lead either. If this certification wasn't required, lead poisoning could become a significant health problem in buildings and job sites where lead paint exists.

Which PPE is Necessary for Removing Lead Paint?

The type of personal protective equipment differs based on lead concentrations. Workers must wear non-permeable gloves and coveralls when removing paint, as the dust can settle on their clothing. Non-permeable boots are also required, and the gaps between the coveralls and boots should be sealed while working.

Respiratory protection is even more critical. Here is a rundown of the types of PPE necessary at different lead concentrations:

  • 50 Micrograms or Fewer Per Cubic Foot - Half mask respirator with air purification and high-efficiency filters.
  • 50 to 250 Micrograms - Full mask with air purification and filters.
  • 250 to 500 Micrograms - Either a powered purifying respirator mask with high-efficiency filters or a half mask with an air delivery system in positive pressure mode.
  • 500 to 1000 Micrograms - A full face mask with an air delivery system, including a hood, helmet, or full-body suit in positive pressure mode.
  • 1000 Micrograms or Greater - A self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) operating in positive pressure mode.

For areas with lower lead concentrations, goggles or eye protection may be necessary to ensure that dust doesn't enter the bloodstream through the eyes. Eyewash stations may also be required.

Methods to Avoid When Removing Lead Paint

If you follow EPA and OSHA requirements for lead paint removal, you should be able to protect your workers. However, to provide some perspective, here are some paint removal methods to avoid so that you don't risk your employees’ health and safety:

  • High Powered Sanding - Although sanding paint off a surface can be fast and efficient, it creates a ton of lead dust. Especially in a contained space, you could generate too much dust to collect, putting everyone at risk.
  • Open Flame Burning - One way to remove paint is to burn off. Unfortunately, this vaporizes the lead particles and makes them even harder to trap in filters.
  • Power Washing - As with high-powered sanding, you could be creating more of a mess than you can clean up. As the paint mixes with the water, it can seep into other surfaces, making it harder to remove.

Get Your PPE From International Enviroguard

If you need to remove lead paint, make sure that your employees are well protected with the best PPE. International Enviroguard has a wide selection of disposable coveralls, shoe covers, boot covers, masks, and more. Not only are all our pieces OSHA compliant, but they're also comfortable and made to withstand your workday. Contact us today to see what we can offer your business.