I’ve been working on stripping wallpaper in my future office.  I finally reached the bottom of decades of different styles of paper and found a painted wall.  It needed some repair and I proceeded to fix cracks, adding drywall tape and plaster where needed and sanding my repairs smooth. It was about then when it occurred to me that it was highly likely that I was playing with lead-based paint.

White lead was used in paint for centuries.  Master artists of the Renaissance mixed it into the pigments used in paintings.  It was considered a luxury paint during the Colonial period in North America and painted many of the United States’ landmark buildings, including Mount Vernon.

photo: mountvernon.org

The paint was durable and washable and grew in demand until it reached its peak use in 1922.   Although very popular, the paint had drawbacks.  It would darken when exposed

Dutch Boy paint ad 1912

to the sulfur dioxide released by coal burning stoves.  It did not weather well and was known to be toxic, even 100 years ago. Symptoms of lead poisoning noted in adults included stomach pain, headache, joint pain, memory loss, high blood pressure- to name just a few.

My little house was built in 1919, when lead paint was in its heyday, but I happily sanded and stripped without even thinking about the risk I was taking.  Fortunately I was taking some precautions just because I don’t like breathing dust.  I was already wearing a mask because sanding the plaster repair created a lot of dust.  I kept the door to the room closed and made a habit of sweeping and then vacuuming the room after sanding each layer of plaster.

It finally dawned on me that I might be working with lead-based paint just before I started to prime the walls.  Immediate freak out!  I started researching what I needed to do to make my house safe.  I began by checking for government pamphlets about lead paint. The EPA was a good place to find information.  It was a little late for me, but they had good advice on how a do-it-yourselfer should proceed if working with lead paint. Some I had done- use a mask, close the room.  Other measures to take included sealing vents and the space under the door with plastic and wearing protective clothing that could be removed before entering the rest of the house. They didn’t offer any alternative for lead abatement except to enlist a professional.

Well crud.  So I kept searching and found several paints that are designed specifically to bind with lead and to prevent it from leaching through layers of paint.  They all have to be purchased on-line.  I didn’t try any of them, but here are the ones I found.  (I don’t have links for them, but they are easy to Google).  The cost of these paints ranged from around $50 to over $100.  I didn’t want to leave my room stripped for the week it would take to get one of these products so I kept looking.

Other ways to make your house safe are to plaster over the paint, or add a layer of drywall, or put up paneling.  I stumbled across 1/4 inch drywall a week ago while wandering through Lowes and thought it might be a good alternative.  1-img_4493-001Before making the hour long trip to the nearest Lowes it I thought that maybe I should check to see if I really had a lead problem. Lead test kits can be purchased at local hardware stores for about $10.  All I had to do was moisten a treated towelette, rub it on my wall and look for a color change.

The towelette turns orange when water is dropped onto it.  The orange color indicates that the towelette is properly prepared to take the test.  If, after rubbing the towelette for two minutes a pink color appears, then lead is present.


I haven’t been this happy to see a negative result since my last pregnancy test!

I was so surprised to see negative results that I did the test twice.  No lead!  Really!

It made me happy, but I  had a hard time understanding how I could have a lead-free house that dated back to when lead paint was so popular.  I read some more and discovered that  a second kind of paint was developed in the late 1800’s that used a compound called lithopone to replace lead.  By the early 1900’s professional painters were experimenting with the new paint and were happy with both the results and the lower cost.  By the 1940’s lithopone was the additive of choice in latex paints and lead paint was on its way out.  My explanation for my wonderful negative lead test is that the house was painted with the new and inexpensive lithopone paint.

Everybody catches a lucky break sometime.  I’m glad that I caught this one!  The room is primed and waiting to be textured tomorrow.