Should I Buy a House That Has Lead-Based Paint?

Should you buy a house that contains lead-based paint?. hanohiki/Shutterstock

Q: My family and I are moving into a new home and the inspection report says that there’s lead-based paint in some rooms of the house. What should I do? Is this a deal breaker? I thought they stopped using lead-based paint in houses years ago. What gives?

A: Good question. The truth is that lead-based paint was banned by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission in 1978 after it was found to have disturbing health implications.

One of the key studies that led (pun intended) to the ban of lead in paint and in gasoline is as dramatic as a Hollywood movie. In the early 1970s, Philip Landrigan, an epidemiologist and pediatrician, tested the lead levels in the blood of children who went to school within one mile of ASARCO, a smelting plant in El Paso, Texas. What he found was, at the time, both devastating and astonishing. He concluded that even small amounts of lead in the blood contributed to lower IQ and impaired motor coordination.

In a later study, he even concluded that lead toxicity directly correlates to lowered lifetime earning potential — a sobering thought, to say the least. (Another interesting lead-related study conducted in 2007 indicates a possible correlation between lead toxicity and crime-related behavior.) Though lead is harmful to adults as well, it is more dangerous to children whose bodies and immune systems are still developing and therefore are more susceptible to outside factors.

It was for this reason that lead-based paint was banned, and today is not used in new home construction. However, if you’re buying a home that was built before the ban went into effect, chances are there is still lead-based paint in the house, hence your dilemma above. Sellers are required to tell you about the lead in the house, so that you can make your own informed decision about whether to purchase and what kinds of renovations will be necessary.

So what can you do? Well, you can get rid of it or you can paint over it. No matter what you decide, though, you definitely want somebody who knows what they’re doing. That’s because when lead-based paint is disturbed in any remodeling-type activities, lead dust can be created and easily ingested. In addition, children are at a higher risk for ingesting it in the form of paint chips, since they’ll eat pretty much anything off the floor. (I’ve found pennies, paper clips, paper and even rocks in my son’s mouth.)

In 2008, the EPA passed a regulation stating that any contractor who is renovating a home with lead-based paint must be trained and certified to deal with it properly to minimize human exposure. In a nutshell, contractors have to contain their work area, minimize lead dust, and clean up thoroughly. Sounds simple enough, but then again, isn’t everything in life when you boil it down? (That’s a different article.) Lucky for you, this regulation just went into full effect, so you should be able to find plenty of contractors who can handle the job effectively and safely.

Even though conventional paint doesn’t contain lead anymore, it still can contain toxic fumes. These days, though, it is possible to find eco-friendly paint options that are comparable in durability and appearance to the conventional kind. And the best part is, you can rest easy at night knowing you don’t have to worry about your child’s lifetime earning potential — at least until he takes the SATs.