Cap and Boots (IV)

In the previous post in this series concerning problems with old houses, I took a look at lead, in the sense of plumbing components. Today I’d like to look at the same material from another angle – as a toxic substance coating the walls of many houses.


Children under six are especially sensitive to lead poisoning because they may play in lead-contaminated dirt or house dust, and then swallow the lead from their dirty hands and faces with their food. If your children have taken up smoking, they should wash their hands before lighting up:

Do you see the word ‘poison’ anywhere on that label? Didn’t think so.

Ah, Dutch Boy Paint, a product of the National Lead Company. Here’s one of their adverts (from the 1920’s I think):

Another one:

According to the EPA, over 1 million children in the US are affected by lead poisoning today at some level of irreversible damage, such as lower intelligence, learning disabilities and behavioral issues. For more, check out

And don’t think it can’t affect adults as well. According to the EPA again, “Adults exposed to lead paint can suffer from high blood pressure, headaches, dizziness, diminished motor skills, fatigue and memory loss. Even small levels of exposure to lead paint can harm adults”. Perhaps this explains the US’s government’s inability to get much done? At least members of the House and Congress have excellent state provided health care coverage. You’d think if they were truly against socialized medicine they’d vote to cancel their own coverage first, as a demonstration of their seriousness, however that seems to have slipped their minds.

Some children deliberately eat paint or dirt because they like the taste -a habit called pica. The term stems from the Latin word for ‘Magpie’, pica pica, a bird that is reputed to have unusual eating behaviors – they are known to eat almost anything:

The goat of the aviary world I guess. Paint chips and bits with a high amount of lead apparently have a slightly sweet taste, so one can readily apprehend the danger of children readily developing an appetite for old paint:

Any house in New England built prior to the ban on lead in paint and varnishes in 1978 is likely to have lead paint problems. If the house was built before 1940, you can be almost 100% certain that lead paint/varnish is present. Not only in the paint, but in the dirt around the perimeter of the home (from old paint being scraped off during repaints), and even in old children’s painted toys, baby cribs and other pieces of (usually old) furniture. Does anyone remember toy maker Mattel recalling thousands of plastic toys in 2007 because they were painted with lead paint? Think about it – the danger of lead in paint has been well-recognized since the early 1900’s, and it takes Mattel until 2007?!

Worse, I suppose, is that by 1909, the scientific case against lead was strong enough to convince France, Belgium and Austria to ban the interior use of lead paint. By 1922, Tunisia and Greece did the same, then Czechoslovakia in 1924, Great Britain and Sweden in 1926, Poland in 1927, Spain and Yugoslavia in 1931 and even Cuba in 1934 – all had joined the list of countries where the sale or use of lead-based paints was prohibited.

A curious person might ask: why did it take the US until 1978 to effect a ban? Well, in an article titled ““Cater to the Children”: The Role of The Lead Industry in a Public Health Tragedy, 1900–1955”, written by Gerald Markowitz, PhD, and David Rosner, PhD, MSPH, for the American Journal of Public Health (January 2000, Volume 90, #1) you can find out more than you’d ever want to know in regards to that matter. If you’re feeling bummed out today, don’t read that article as it is not going to cheer you up any.

The authors’ conclusions? Well, this might come as a shock, but it appears that the Lead Industries Association, a lobby group with enormous resources behind it, was more than a little influential in bringing about the pronounced delay in passing Lead Legislation:

Whatever responsibility the public health community had for this tragedy pales in comparison with the power and determination of the industry in perpetuating the use of lead-based paint. The lead industry, as a sponsor of research and as a clearinghouse of information about lead, was positioned to be in the forefront of efforts to prevent lead expo- sure in children. Instead, the industry placed its own economic interests ahead of the welfare of the nation’s children.

Further, and more specifically, as evidence mounted against the use of lead in paint, in the US,

…the industry did nothing to discourage the use of lead paint on walls and woodwork or to warn the general public or public health authorities of the dangers inherent in the product. In fact, it did the opposite: it engaged in an energetic promotion of lead paint for both exterior and interior uses from the 1920s through the Second World War. For a portion of that period, white lead in paint was “the most important outlet for pig lead metal,”30 according to the LIA, which was organized in 1928 to promote the use of lead. A can of pure white lead paint was composed of huge amounts of lead, creating a large market for mining companies and pigment manufacturers.

Moreover, the efforts of the lead lobby paid off handsomely in terms of their bottom line:

This marketing of the Dutch Boy image was seen as an essential element of National Lead Company’s increasing profitability; the company’s sales rose from $80 million in 1939 to more than $320 million in 1948. The continuing use of the Dutch Boy image was understood by the broader marketing industry as a clever method of improving the image of National Lead. In 1949, one marketing journal noted that “putting the boy, with his wooden keg and brush, in the attitude of a house painter, gave animation to the subject, tied him up with the product and suggested that the quality of the paint was so good that even a child could use it.” (emphasis mine)

When pressure began to mount against the lead industry in the early 1950’s the industry switched tactics, away from defending their products to blaming victims – lead poisoning, they said, was associated to peeling paint, “a problem of slum dwellings and relatively ignorant parents“.

Well, I urge you to read that article (easy to find online), and take a look again at those Dutch Boy adverts posted above – just a couple of hundreds you can find online where lead paint is associated to children, and children are acknowledged by the Lead Industry as future customers worthy of cultivation. Lead, a benign material safe for your children – ahh! Reminds me of the tobacco lobby and its fine efforts to promote and defend its ‘harmless’ products over the years. A sick bunch of mofos pathologically concerned with profit above every other concern.

The lead in a house’s paint is generally not a problem if it is secure in place – that is, the paint is in good condition – however a rubbing door or rattling window can be shedding fine lead-laden particulates and when dust with lead in it is respired, the lead accumulates in the body tissues and causes problems. According to a Wikipedia article,

One myth related to lead-based paint is that children must eat leaded paint chips to develop lead poisoning. In fact, childhood lead exposure can occur by way of ingestion of lead dust through normal hand-to-mouth contact during which children swallow lead dust dislodged from deteriorated paint or leaded dust generated during remodeling or painting.

If you are renting a home that was built pre-1978, your landlord is required by law to disclose the presence of lead paint to you. If you are buying a pre-1978 home, the seller is required by law to disclose this to you as well.  My landlord seems to have overlooked this detail, but he has lived in the house for many years so perhaps uh, his memory is impaired by this point in time?

Why was lead used in paint and varnish, you may well ask? Basically lead was used in two forms with these products- white lead (a.k.a. lead carbonate, trade name Cerussite (PbCO3), and yellow lead (a.k.a. lead chromate (PbCrO4). Yellow lead compounds were used as a pigment, to give paint its tint, to make colors brighter. Lead was added to paint as a way of helping a small amount of paint go further. Lead pigments, you see, are rather opaque, and thus a small amount covers a large area, and second coats are often not required. White lead is insoluble in water, making the paint highly water-resistant, durable, and washable. This in turn means that in cases where the paint substrate is metal, the metal gains added corrosion resistance from the lead compounds. Lead apparently was also added to paint to help it dry faster. White lead also neutralizes acidic compounds in the oil components of the paint, which also improves the paint’s durability and tendency to stay flexible over time. For the vast majority of paint uses, lead pigments have been replaced since the late 1970’s at least, with titanium dioxide. Titanium dioxide is considered safe enough that it is used for food coloring, as a toothpaste additive, and in sunscreen. Perhaps in a few years it will come out that it is toxic too, but in the meantime, full steam ahead! In the EU, the only place lead paint is permitted is in certain historical restorations, and in the US lead paint remains in use for coating boat hulls and a few other limited industrial applications.

To permanently remove lead hazards in the house, lead abatement remediation is required. This can only be performed by people who have become certified to work with lead. Anyone who enters into house renovation work should be lead-abatement certified, as any act of cutting, grinding, or demolition can create hazardous lead dust and chips. Poorly done lead abatement can be worse than no abatement at all. Sanding paint can release micron-sized lead dust particles which can remain airborne for substantial periods and cannot be completely removed by standard cleaning methods. Companies who fail to comply with the regulations may face penalties of up to $32,500 per violation, per day. The EPA site has a page listing some of the court decisions and penalties handed out in recent months. Contractors who flaunt the regulations, or homeowners who decide to do things on the cheap and not follow safe work procedures with lead paint are taking a significant risk with their future, and I mean that in more than one way.

Basically, the 8-hour training course for contractors teaches how to ‘hermetically’ contain the area to be worked, how to minimize dust while working and how to clean up thoroughly after working. This requirement has been a boon to suppliers of HEPA-rated vacuum cleaners and plastic sheet barrier systems. And of course, all of the renovation waste from a site, if lead contaminated, must be disposed of properly. I think the regulations are wise, if a little late in coming, and there is no denying that the extra costs incurred in training and certifying workers, properly handling lead on site, and proper disposal all will drive up the cost of home renovation work.

While a paint containing white lead and linseed oil is often a very good coating material from a performance standpoint, being durable, spreading easily and drying rapidly, it is not the case that modern paints are inferior. Some will say that modern paints are inferior to old, however it is likely that it is not a problem so much with the paint, but with the people applying it. My Grandfather (no longer alive) on my mother’s side was a Master Decorator and served a traditional apprenticeship. In his day, not only was labor relatively cheap, and thus painters in that era spent a lot longer on the phase called ‘surface preparation’. Also, the range of products used was considerably narrower, and the chance of re-coating old paint with incompatible materials was considerably reduced. Further, in the pre-War period, the wood used for exterior applications was of higher quality for the most part, and was free of sapwood. Sapwood, often associated to the use of wood from juvenile trees in particular, is far less rot-resistant and more prone to movement in service. And, bugs like sapwood too for all the sugars they can snack on. Nowadays, wood containing sapwood is pressure treated with toxic chemicals to make it ‘sorta’ useable. Think PS Pine Decking. Well, it’s cheap I guess – and detestable.

So, that about covers lead. It was all a bit heavy I suppose. Excuse the word play. Would you feel enthused about buying an old house filled with lead paint? I wouldn’t. And lead, well, that’s certainly not the only toxic substance you will have to deal with in an older house. In the next post we’ll look at another danger lurking in these ‘classics’.

Thanks for coming by the Carpentry Way.  ➦ on to post 5

3 thoughts on “Cap and Boots (IV)

  1. Hi Chris,
    I've met a few house painters in my time that seem to have spent a lot of time at those great lead parties.


  2. Mike,

    thanks for your comment. I wonder how many painters in the day died young from exposure to lead in the paint and varnish?


    thanks for your comment and glad you enjoyed the post and the blog.


Anything to add?