Several specks, so few and minuscule that millions can cram onto a penny. That’s approximately how much lead-laced dust rested on a window well in the master bedroom of Tiffany Dragos’s newly purchased farm house in Ashton, Maryland.
That amount — 440 micrograms per square foot — slightly exceeds what Maryland and many other states consider safe.
Ingested or breathed in, lead — a toxic metal once widely used in paint, pipes and finishes — accumulates in bones and harms the brain and kidneys, among other organs. Lead poisoning especially affects pregnant women and children, permanently impairing their physical, behavioral and mental health.
According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, nearly 90 percent of abodes constructed before 1940 nationwide are likely to have lead. That probability declines for the subsequent decades, but today any home built before 1978, when lead-based paint succumbed to a national ban, is presumed to contain the element, which can also permeate water and soil.
Dragos knew that the 1703 farm house, where she envisions raising kids, could be a trove of lead risks.
“There could be tons of lead in the house or maybe there is only a little,” Dragos said. “It was very hard for me to make a decision [to buy] because I was feeling very confused and emotional.”
Under federal statute, homebuyers of pre-1978 residences must receive any known information about lead and be granted the opportunity to conduct an inspection. The District of Columbia, where nearly 90 percent of the housing stock emerged before 1978, also decrees that home sellers disclose any orders from local authorities to mitigate lead hazards.
More than a matter when properties switch hands or welcome new renters, lead exposure is triggering growing concerns as science progressively uncovers its deleterious potency and the nation’s homes age. Thus, when extant, lead threats necessitate abatement or interim controls.
In cities around the country, government agencies — some with federal funding — are implementing lead safety initiatives that often kick in when a child is poisoned. But aside from government-mandated efforts, owners of pre-1978 homes wary about lead should inspect for it.
“The rule of thumb that we propose is in an older home, if the finishes look good, test for lead,” said Erik Listou, industry instructor and co-founder of the Living In Place Institute. “Because lead is what kept them intact. It is metal; it doesn’t degrade.”
An EPA-certified lead inspector should carry out the examination, which utilizes an X-ray fluorescence (XRF) tool. Resembling a police radar gun, it detects lead in multiple layers of interior and exterior paint and on any stained features such as cabinets, doors and windows.
“I have inspected houses built in 1900 that still have the original lead-based paint,” said John Burnside of Burnside Enterprises in Colorado. “It might be under two or three layers of paint, but it is still there after 120 years.”
A check of 150 spots throughout Dragos’s three-century-old property in Montgomery County, Maryland, produced 19 lead-positive results.
While states may postulate disparate cutoff quantities, the Department of Housing and Urban Development denotes paint as lead-based if, per square centimeter, it bears 1 milligram or more of the metal.
But this divulges little about hazards. If chipping, flaking or peeling do not plague the paint, it is safe. If they do, harmful lead dust may settle in.
“We worry about friction points creating lead-based dust,” said John Overholser, building consultant and ancillary services manager with Top to Bottom Services in Gaithersburg, Maryland, which worked with Dragos. “The wood-framed windows that are painted. Doors that don’t fit right and rub when you shut them. Railings that are getting rubbed down. Things like that can create that lead dust.”
Lead dust requires a risk assessment with wipe samples, which Dragos opted for even though that type of analysis often pertains to documented cases of poisoning.
“I decided for my own peace of mind and having the true picture and reality of what I was dealing with, I would rather invest” in it, she said, adding that the expense, at $565, depended on the number of swipes taken.
There are various lead-dust safety thresholds, taking into account the ways different spaces diverge in how susceptible they are to thorough cleaning and how accessible they are to kids. In June, the EPA and HUD tightened those, slashing contamination standards from 40 to 10 micrograms and from 250 to 100 micrograms of lead per square foot for floors and window sills, respectively.
Lead inspections are costly, so home kits offer a substitute. While some contractors favor them to gauge the need for safeguards against lead, Michael Winn, owner of Winn Design + Build in Falls Church, Va., does not recommend home tests for lay use as they require the baring of every coat of paint.
“Most homeowners don’t know to do that,” Winn said. “So, they may feel like they don’t have lead when they actually do.”
Even if done right, home kits only reveal the presence of lead, not its amount.
Most remediation work calls for EPA-licensed professionals and special permits – not only because of health perils but also because of the possibility of unintentionally spreading lead.
Yet if dust holds lead in lower amounts than the postulated levels, thorough and regular cleaning with wet towels and a high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) vacuum usually tampers any danger.
This is the approach Mari Fontaine, president of New Hampshire-based Community Builders Construction, took when her family lived in a rental with lead. “I just knew that we need to make sure that we didn’t create any dust,” she said. “We really kept it very, very clean.”
Specialized cleaning represents one of the interim controls and “is generally the most common, easiest and cheapest” method to address lead hazards, said Brandon Colunga, senior project environmental specialist with the District’s DMY Capitol.
Interim controls are meant as temporary measures that demand periodic monitoring. They also include wet scraping – so that it doesn’t create dust – of deteriorating paint and the blanketing of lead-tainted soilfrom an abraded exterior with mulch or gravel.
“It is not total removal, but it is a fix that is acceptable,” said Amin Abdullah, chief executive of Has Construction.
Total removal is what the Living In Place Institute’s Listou prefers. Anything short of it is a Band-Aid, he said. But it could be quite a costly solution.
Lead projects can range from $3,000 to $10,000 depending on the amount of lead, the size of the affected area and the kind of remedy, among other variables. And, expenses may swell further with any renovations – new doors or a new lick of paint – warranted after the job.
“Our clients have always been a bit shocked by the cost of that,” said Susan Isaacs, real estate agent with Compass’s Isaacs Team in the District. “I think for a lot of people, the removal and replacement is prohibitive.”
Despite the cost, Dragos plans to replace the lead-laced window. “That is going to be the biggest investment,” she said, accenting her intention to also gradually take out the rest of the lead-bearing components throughout the Ashton property.
Short of removal
For reasons beyond expense, removal is not always feasible. Historic neighborhoods, for example, may impose rules on what antique features are indispensable. In such instances, other abatement practices allow for what is deemed long-term prevention of hazardous exposure while keeping lead in place.
Encapsulation is one option. Sealing any withering paint, a lead encapsulant often also discourages kids from coming in contact with it. “The encapsulant a lot of times contains Bitrex, which is a bitter chemical that prevents the child from wanting to lick on the paint or chew on the paint,” said Aaron Whitmore, owner of Richmond-based Blake Contracting.
Another method is enclosure, or the covering of lead-bearing surfaces, including the construction of dry walls and the installation of carpets.
Despite its scope, any lead abatement activity heeds stringent rules. A containment area – a plastic tent over the house when working on the exterior – needs to be constructed. Rigid removal procedures – sealing any waste and disposing of it in regulated landfills – must be followed. Meticulous cleaning should oust any gathered dust – a process that contractors repeat until a follow-up lead inspection indicates no lead hazards.
Hazards, though, can also lurk in a house’s plumbing as pipes and fixtures used to be made of lead.
“Lately, there has been a lot of focus on lead pipes and water contamination in lead pipes,” Isaacs said.
Of the 105,000 private water service pipes in the District of Columbia, about 7,500 are made of lead, according to a 2018 fiscal memorandum on the replacement of lead service lines. While the material of roughly 82,000 pipes is unknown, it is assumed to be lead for half of them.
Any mitigation, however, may pose a challenge, especially so for service pipes, or those that carry water from a city’s main to a property and lie on both public and private premises. Thus, the District has recently enacted a mandate that coordinates pipe replacements among owners.
Pipes might be hard to inspect and replace but lead-loaded water can be easily tested and filtered through a system affixed to the kitchen’s faucet or at the start of an unleaded private service pipe.
Dragos’s water proved free of lead. After a lab analysis, so did the soil.
Content with the outcome, she said, “my advice is to just go ahead and invest in the [lead] tests so you know exactly what you are dealing with.”