Lead-Based Paint and the Home Inspector

Home-buyers often ask their home inspector for specialized services.  Some, such as radon testing and mold sampling are easy enough to offer.  They require some additional training, an attention to detail, and professional-grade equipment.  Results are generally reliable, and give clients a better understanding of their home.  They can be a great addition to a home inspection business.  Other services, like testing for lead-based paint, are not as easy to offer as one might think.

The hazards of lead-based paint are well documented, and very widely known.  Public service announcements, news stories, and EPA publications have been instrumental in getting out the word on this common toxin source.  But what is a home-owner or potential home-buyer to do with that knowledge?


Lead Paint Testing

It seems reasonable that, as a home inspector, I might be able to help a client evaluate their home’s lead toxicity.  Maybe I could perform an easy, lead-based paint test just like I regularly test a home for radon gas.  Unfortunately, it’s not as simple as that.  Although a radon test requires careful consideration when placing monitoring equipment, radon gas will find its way to the equipment.  It’s a rather passive test.  We place our equipment, and leave it alone for a minimum of 48 hours.

Lead-based paint testing, on the other hand, requires an active approach.  Paint dust can be collected for a test.  Paint chips can also be collected.  However, test results will only be valid for the actual samples collected.  Adjoining rooms, ceilings, walls, doors, windows, and trim all require separate tests to evaluate their potential lead toxicity.  This is the reason testing dust, chips, and wipes is only appropriate for renovation work affecting a limited area.  For the record, this is the same kind of test available as a kit in retail stores.  The primary difference is the training received by the renovator.

A comprehensive home evaluation requires a different approach.  X-ray fluorescence (XRF) instruments are the preferred tool for the job.  These allow technicians to measure the lead content of paint surfaces throughout a home without damage.  They are portable, precise, and quick, but also very expensive to purchase.  However, a trained technician can test an entire home for a fraction of the time and cost that a comparable number of chip and wipe tests would need.


Lead Activities as a Licensed Profession

All lead-paint work is regulated within the State of Michigan.  Only licensed Lead Inspectors or Lead Risk Assessors may perform XRF testing or dust sample collection to conduct a qualified risk assessment.  Only a licensed Risk Assessor may evaluate the results of a lead-based paint inspection.  Anyone offering these services without the appropriate license is breaking Michigan law, and putting their clients’ health at risk.

Lead Inspectors and Risk Assessors pursue their activities full-time to make their investment in training and equipment pay off.  This makes the work incompatible with general nature of home inspections.  If any of my competitors begin offering licensed Lead Risk Assessments, I won’t be quick to follow them.  I would have to add the service to most inspections for it to be profitable.  That would more than double the time and cost of the average home inspection.  So, what do I recommend for my clients instead?


General Guidance as a Home Inspector

I recommend home-buyers make a few key decisions well before they consider submitting a purchase offer.  They can start by studying the table displayed at the head of this article.  According to the EPA, 87% of homes built before 1940 still have lead-based paint in them.  69% of home built from 1940 to 1960 contain lead-based paint, but only 24% of homes built between 1960 and 1977.  If a home-buyer wants to eliminate their exposure to lead-paint hazards entirely, they could just avoid purchasing a home built before 1978.  If they are willing to invest some time and effort in understanding these homes, they can virtually eliminate their family’s exposure risk in any of these homes.


Managing the Risk

The most precise approach would be to schedule a lead-based paint inspection and risk assessment.  Federal law requires home-sellers allow prospective buyers 10 days in which to conduct such a test of pre-1978 construction, so gaining access should not be a problem.  A home-seller must disclose lead hazards once they receive the results of a licensed, third-party inspection and assessment.  This can become a negotiating tool in the hands of a skilled Realtor.  The new home-owner can then hire a lead-safe renovator or abatement firm to address specific problem areas after the purchase.

A less-targeted, yet comprehensive approach would be to avoid older homes with notable paint deficiencies, and purchase a home in better condition.  According to federal law, all buyers of pre-1978 homes must receive the EPA’s excellent handbook, Protecting Your Family from Lead in Your Home from the seller.  Home-buyers can use this handbook to guide their home-ownership activities toward reducing their future risk of lead exposure.

Since all painted or lacquered surfaces require periodic re-finishing, home-owners can use this opportunity to thoroughly isolate any underlying lead-based finishes from surface exposure.  Wet cleaning methods and the use of HEPA filters in the home can capture migrant lead dust.  Lead-safe renovation and lead abatement activities use both of these measures.  Employing them as a regular part of housekeeping simply makes good sense.

Understanding the potential risk of lead toxicity in the home can become overwhelming.  Lead poisoning is always tragic.  A basic understanding of lead paint hazards can help home-owners control exposure pathways.  Consult your home advisory team regarding these hazards, and have your action plan in place well before you submit your purchase offer.