Ten Myths of Lead Paint

Myth #1: Lead paint is not used anymore.

Unfortunately lead paint is commonly sold in stores in at least 45 countries around the world, despite the overwhelming evidence that it harms both children and adults. Lead paint is also used for hundreds of so-called “industrial” applications often on metal surfaces and is sometimes found on imported products in the U.S.

Myth #2: There are regulations in place banning the use of lead paint.

Very few countries have completely banned all uses of lead paint and even in the U.S., Canada and Europe it is legal to use “industrial” lead paints for many applications. A few countries including the Philippines have regulated the lead content of both residential and industrial paints. In Europe regulators are trying to ban paint ingredients containing lead on a chemical-by-chemical basis and have banned the use of lead chromate pigments. Efforts to restrict the use of lead paint date back to the 1920's, but it was not banned for residential use in the U.S. until 1978.

Myth #3: Only residential paint is a problem, as children don’t get exposed to industrial paints.

Both children and adults are exposed to lead paint so-called “industrial” applications used on roads, highways, steel structures, industrial buildings, automobiles and other vehicles, and farm equipment. Exposures result when these paints deteriorate and contribute to dust and soil contamination, or when the paint is removed during routine maintenance. In addition, workers are exposed to lead during construction and repainting and often take home lead dust on their hands, hair, shoes, cars and clothes. Many cases of childhood lead poisoning can be attributed to “take home” lead exposures from these sources. Furthermore, industrial paints can be applied to homes, schools, or consumer products.

Myth #4: Some lead pigments are not a problem because they have low solubility (and are therefore do not get absorbed into the body).

Some pigment manufacturers and others have defended the ongoing use of lead additives in paints by claiming that these chemicals have “low” solubility. Although lead compounds do differ in their solubility, there is no evidence to suggest that this stops lead from being absorbed through the lungs or ingested when trapped on the upper airways. In addition, research suggests that some lead compounds with lower solubility may pose a greater hazard as these particles can remain longer in the lung and may increase their potential to cause cancer. There is no scientific evidence linking low-solubility with so-called lower “bioavailability,” which is why virtually all regulations govern total lead and not soluble lead.

Myth #5: Most Lead Poisoning in the U.S. is From Contaminated Water or Other Sources.

Although lead paint has been restricted from use in residential applications since 1978, it is still the most common cause of lead poisoning among children in the U.S. Lead paint contaminates household dust and soil on the exterior of the home through normal aging, friction and impact (e.g. windows and doors), and weathering of paint on building exteriors. Lead contamination of household dust and soil is sufficient to severely poison a young child in many cases. In addition, some children eat peeling and chipping paint.

Myth #6: There are no substitutes for lead in paint and lead pigments keep us safer because they protect public safety as they can be seen better at night.

There are in fact substitutes available for all uses of lead compounds in paints, inks, glazes and other coating products, making their continued use unnecessary. At least one pigment manufacturer has claimed that paints made without lead pigments are not as yellow and therefore do not protect the public when applied on roadways. But U.S. highway departments stopped using lead paint on roadways 20 years ago and there has been no evidence that the substitutes pose any safety hazard or are associated with more accidents. In fact, vehicle accidents and fatalities in the U.S. have dropped dramatically in the past two decades even as roadways have become busier and miles traveled have increased.

Myth #7: Lead paint only impacts children’s health.

Adults are also over exposed to lead in the course of applying, disturbing and removing lead paint. These exposures can be very significant and dozens of studies have documented the increase in workers’ blood lead levels from these sources. Lead causes many adverse health effects in adults and even low levels are linked to elevated blood pressure, associated with at least 674,000 deaths per year globally. Even so-called “low” levels in pregnant women result in reduced fetal growth and lower birth weight.

Myth #8: Lead paint is only a problem when it is damaged or deteriorated.

Although deteriorated lead paint is a problem, even normal weathering of lead paints on exterior surfaces contributes to lead contamination of soil, exterior dust, water and air. National surveys in the U.S. have shown that homes with only intact lead paint have more lead dust than homes without any lead paint.

Myth #9: Most kids get exposed to lead by eating paint chips.

Although a few children eat or ingest paint chips and can get highly exposed to lead, most exposures result from the lead in settled dust in homes with lead paint. Even homes with intact lead paint have higher levels of lead in dust in the home and in soil surrounding the home.

Myth #10: Lead paint in homes and schools is not a big problem as you can easily remove it.

It is difficult to safely remove lead paint as sanding, scraping, torching, or power sanding can release lead dust, expose workers, and contaminate the building and surrounding area. The use of dangerous solvents including methylene chloride can poison workers and also leave behind significant contamination. If not performed correctly by trained crews, the removal of lead paint can create a more hazardous environment and result in higher exposures to building occupants. Often the best way to abate lead paint is to remove and replace building components.