Crucial Knowledge for Home Inspectors: Understanding Lead Paint Hazards

November 17, 2020 | 
home inspectors lead paint

As a home inspector, you take pride in doing the most thorough job possible for your clients. From roof to basement, you make sure you look over every inch of every house you inspect to write a complete report — one that will help your clients make an informed decision about their purchase.

While most issues in a home will be obvious to your highly trained eye — sometimes with an assist from a drone! — not everything is easily visible. Lead paint is a common problem in homes of a certain age, but it’s not always clear what kind of paint was used and whether lead is lurking beneath the surface or not.

So what’s a responsible home inspector to do regarding lead paint? Here’s everything you need to know.

The dangers of lead in the home

For centuries lead was a go-to metal for construction, especially plumbing. (Fun fact: “plumber” comes from the Latin plumbum, the ancient Roman word for lead.) Despite its use in pipes, decoration, and even cooking vessels, lead is actually pretty dangerous to humans. Over time, lead levels can build up in the body and lead to various symptoms. Lead poisoning typically happens with prolonged exposure, and even small amounts can build up in the body over months and years, leading to serious health problems.

Some of the issues associated with lead poisoning in adults include:

  • Decreased ability to concentrate
  • Fertility issues in men
  • Fertility issues in women
  • Headaches
  • High blood pressure
  • Issues with memory
  • Mood disorders
  • Muscle aches and pain
  • Painful joints
  • Stomach aches and abdominal pain

While these issues are serious for adults, lead exposure can be even more devastating for infants and children. When exposed to lead in utero, newborns have lower birth weight and slower growth when compared with babies who have not been exposed to lead.

But that’s not all. Lead also causes the following health problems for children:

  • Behavioral problems
  • Constipation
  • Developmental delays
  • Headaches
  • Hearing loss
  • Irritability
  • Lack of energy for normal activities
  • Learning difficulties and disabilities
  • Pica (cravings to eat things that aren’t food)
  • Reduced appetite
  • Seizures
  • Stomach aches and abdominal pain
  • Vomiting
  • Weight loss

These symptoms are all concerning on their own, but one of the biggest challenges with lead poisoning is that once the symptoms are present, serious damage has already been done to the body. For children, this could be irreversible brain damage to the developing brain. In both children and adults, severe lead poisoning can also cause major damage to the kidneys and nervous system, leading to seizures and even death in very severe cases.

Finally, it’s important to note that lead is especially dangerous for children because they are much more likely to ingest it than adults are. After all, babies and toddlers explore the world by putting all sorts of things into their mouths, including chipped paint from an old windowsill or toys that have a fine coating of lead dust on them. Their bodies absorb lead more efficiently than adults, so even a small exposure can be harmful.

Clearly, your clients are interested in making sure that they — and especially their children! — avoid exposure to lead paint in the home.

So where should you be looking for lead paint during an inspection?

Where lead paint may be lurking

White lead has been used as a pigment since colonial times, and it was especially popular in paint in the early twentieth century (which coincided with a big building boom as people moved to cities and, after World War II, to new homes in the suburbs). Lead made for a bright white coating that adhered well to wood and was highly durable. It also made paint more opaque, so painters could use less and finish the job quickly. Homeowners liked it for its washable surface. Basically, lead paint was an amazing product that people loved, and it was used in homes and businesses across the country for decades.

After years of resistance from the paint industry, public health experts were finally able to pass legislation that limited the use of lead in paint. This was crucial to protect vulnerable children from poisoning and make construction safer for everyone. In 1978, the US government banned lead paint for consumers entirely.

This means that homes built after 1978 are unlikely to have lead paint in them (though some experts recommend using 1980 as a rule of thumb since many painters would still have had stockpiles of lead paint to use up, and some were reluctant to make the switch).

It also means homes built before 1978 are at risk for lead paint. According to the EPA, the older the home, the higher the risk. About 24% of homes built between 1960 and 1977 have lead paint, while 69% of homes built between 1940 and 1959 have lead paint. For homes built before 1940, the number skyrockets to 89%.

In older homes, lead paint may have been used on many surfaces, both indoors and out. Lead paint isn’t a health hazard when it’s still intact, but the minute it starts to break down — cracking, chipping, flaking, crumbling, or being pulverized under friction — small pieces can be ingested or inhaled, leading to health problems.

The most common places to find problematic lead paint are places subject to impact and friction, such as:

  • Baseboards
  • Doors and door frames
  • Exterior surfaces, especially doors, windows, and fascia
  • Kitchen and bathroom woodwork, including cabinetry
  • Porches and fences
  • Railings, banisters, and other places used as a handhold
  • Stair treads and risers
  • Surfaces with shiny enamel paint
  • Window sills and frames, especially where sashes rub together

On older homes with failing exterior paint, it’s also possible that the soil around the house has been contaminated with lead, thanks to flakes of paint washing off the house and mixing into the earth.

How to spot and report the possibility of lead

When lead paint is in good condition, it’s not a danger. It’s also hard to tell just by looking if perfectly intact paint has lead in it or not. It’s when it fails that lead paint becomes a health hazard.

Fortunately, lead paint has a distinctive look when it starts to decay. It begins to crack and flake off in a pattern that looks like scales — in fact, lead inspectors often call this “alligatoring.” This differs from a single long or concentric cracks that look more like spiderwebs.

Of course, another good sign of failing lead paint is evidence of squarish or scale-shaped paint chips on floors or window sills near painted surfaces. These chips are themselves dangerous.

If you see any of these signs of lead paint during a home inspection, it’s important to note them on your report to alert clients to the possibility of lead paint. You may also mention the facts about lead paint being a possibility in any home built before 1978, even if you don’t see any evidence during your inspection.

It’s also important to note and explain to your clients that you won’t be able to give them a definitive answer about lead paint from your standard inspection. Lead paint can’t always be seen with the naked eye and requires a specialized lead inspection.

During a full lead inspection, a certified lead inspector will test all painted surfaces for lead paint. This is typically done with an X-ray fluorescence (XRF) machine that uses X-rays to detect the presence of certain elements — in this case, lead. Inspectors will also send samples of paint, dust, and paint chips to a laboratory for additional testing.

This is beyond the scope of a standard home inspection and requires a certified lead inspector to get the job done right.

How to become a certified lead inspector

The EPA has specific requirements for lead inspectors that include in-depth certification training. Depending on where you live and work, you will need to complete a training course authorized by your state or by the EPA’s federal training standards.

Depending on your state’s requirements, you may have to complete a certain number of hours of coursework, pass an examination, and/or complete supervised apprenticeship hours under a master inspector to earn your own lead license. You may also need to complete continuing education courses regularly to renew your license.

Finally, you’ll need to purchase the proper equipment for lead inspections, including safety gear and an XRF machine. This can be costly, but if you’re looking to expand your inspection business to offer this valuable service to your clients, it may be a worthwhile investment.

Looking for more great advice on growing your home inspection business? HomeGauge is here to help! Check out our Learning Center for tons of useful information just for professional home inspectors, or get started using HomeGauge Home Inspection Software to manage, market, and grow your business.

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