Testing Your Home For Lead Paint

Testing for Lead Paint with LeadCheck: DIY Product Pick

Filed Under: Kitchen & Bath, Products & Materials, Essential Skills, Know-How

Many old homes still contain lead paint, which can be hazardous to your health -- even deadly. 3M Instant LeadCheck swabs allow you to perform lead testing in your own home easily -- and start determining whether you need lead paint remediation today.

lead paint, lead testing, testing for lead paint

Lead testing: Does your home contain lead paint? Photo: Corbis

"When we got married it was our dream to buy old houses and fix them up," says Karen. But Karen and her husband didn't know their 100-year-old dream home would one day send their baby to the emergency room for poisoning from lead paint.

It all started when the couple began remodeling the entire house from top to bottom, including the kitchen, bathrooms, and front porch. They added a deck, updated the electric and plumbing and replaced all the windows. Then after their second son was born, they hired a contractor to paint the outside of the house.

"I had the windows open during some of the painting, thinking that the dust was not a problem," says Karen. "There were never any paint chips around and the contractor just dry-sanded the paint."

Then one day, Karen's one-year-old son received a random blood test -- and she was advised to rush her baby to the emergency room for lead poisoning. "He was never showing any symptoms or signs of a problem," says Karen. In fact, that's true for most people affected by lead poisoning; you might not notice a problem until later in life. The symptoms of lead poisoning -- irritability, loss of appetite, vomiting, learning difficulties, memory loss -- happen well after the dangerous amounts have accumulated in the blood.

For 100 years, scientific reports have warned that lead paint was harmful to children, yet the product continued be produced until the U.S. paint and coatings industry to voluntarily reduced its use of lead pigments (which help paint dry faster) in consumer paints in the 1950s. Then the Consumer Products Safety Commission banned lead in consumer paints in 1978.

Still, there are 78 million homes built before 1978 in the United States, many of which still contain lead paint. Babies tend to put things in their mouths, making them particularly prone to lead poisoning, but anyone is at risk -- especially DIYers. Home improvements kick up lots of dust, sending lead paint into the air (and into your lungs. So, to help protect us from the dangers of lead dust, the EPA has started to require new lead-safe practices this year.

In addition, the EPA has recognized an inexpensive, DIY-friendly lead test kit called LeadCheck that's been around since 1992. It was created by a doctor, and is available at some local paint & hardware stores or at LeadPaintEPAsupplies.com

Lead Check

Does your home contain lead paint? Photo: LeadCheck

Plus, 3M LeadCheck is easy to use: You just crush the ends of the 3M LeadCheck swab like a Bright Glow Stick so the chemicals inside mix, and then you dab the end of the swab to the material you want to test. If the end of the swab turns pink or red, the surface contains lead.

For Karen and her family, the 3M LeadCheck swabs may have not been enough to prevent her son from lead poisoning. But, if you're planning DIY projects and you just aren't sure if there's lead paint, a pack of swabs costs very little compared to the cost to treat or to live with lead poisoning. 

(If you prefer to hire someone to work on your pre-1978 home instead of DIYing it, know that they must be EPA-certified renovators who are trained to follow lead-safe renovation, repair, and painting work (RRP) practices, which include containing the work area, minimizing the dust, and cleaning up thoroughly.)

On a personal level, my husband and I are planning to use 3M LeadCheck as part of our RRP program while we renovate our home and clients' homes, and we've made a commitment to get our 2-year-old's lead level checked at his annual appointment just to be sure we're safe.

And how is Karen's family today? "Our youngest son is doing really well," says Karen. "Our oldest son -- who never had a lead level considered high -- was diagnosed with Asperger's soon after we left that house. I do wonder if even that small level of lead over a longer period of time had something to do with it."