Of all the ways to spruce up your abode, whether for selling or for your own enjoyment, applying a fresh coat of paint ranks among the easiest and most cost effective options. That innocent seeming paint job, however, may have some hidden dangers, both in terms of removal of old paint and application of a new coat. First, let’s discuss the old paint. It is common knowledge in the real estate industry that structures built before 1978 potentially harbor lead paint. In 1987, the federal government banned consumer use of lead containing paint and in years previous to this ban, its usage varied. If your home was built between 1960-1977 there’s about a 24% chance that your home was painted with paint containing lead. Between 1940 and 1959, there’s a 69% chance, and before 1940, a whopping 87% chance. Why does it matter? Because lead from paint, including lead-containing dust, is one of the most common causes of lead poisoning. Lead interferes with a variety of body processes and is toxic to many organs and tissues including the heart, bones, intestines, kidneys and reproductive and nervous systems. It is particularly toxic to children, as it interferes with the development of the nervous system and can therefore cause permanent learning and behavior disorders. The good news is that lead paint is harmless when it is left undisturbed. As long as the old paint is well adhered, you can keep it safely encapsulated under a latex primer and top coat. It’s only when the surface gets disturbed, either through neglect or as a result of remodeling activities, that we need to worry about contact with lead. The biggest culprit is lead dust—easily breathed in and also easily ingested by children who always seem to have their hands in their mouths. The key to working lead-safe is to minimize and contain the dust. It is best, however, not to undertake lead removal on your own. Even writings from die-hard do-it-yourselfers like the folks from “This Old House” warn over and over that it is best to bring in a professional when removing old paint or attempting a remodeling project that could disturb old paint. The King County Public Health Department publishes a list called “Washington State Certified Lead-Based Paint Firms” which includes companies qualified for the removal of lead based paint. These companies will do testing as well, which is recommended over the simple, and frequently unreliable, lead-paint detection kits sold at local home improvement stores.
So now that we have covered old paint, let’s move on to some potential concerns regarding new paint. We’re all familiar with that “new paint smell,” but did you know that smell is actually caused by volatile organic compounds (VOCs), a class of chemicals that at low levels can cause headaches, dizziness or nausea, and at higher/longer exposure can cause damage to kidneys, liver and nervous or respiratory systems? The good news here is that eco-friendly alternatives have surged in recent years with more than 20 companies now offering low-and no-VOC paints that perform as well as their predecessors. When choosing paint, be sure to choose latex paints, whose primary solvent is water, over alkyd paint, whose primary solvent is petroleum/oil as the VOCs are much lower in latex paint.
So there you go—all the knowledge you need to get out there and safely spruce up those drab walls!
King County Public Health