Lead Testing & Inspections
The Department of Health estimates 1.2 million homes in Washington have lead based paint. Our goal is to help customers identify lead issues and provide common sense recommendations to protect their families.
All of our inspectors carry the Lead Risk Assessors certification. This additional training allows us to not only perform lead testing, it allows us to discuss the risks associated with different building materials in your home. Standard lead inspectors are only allowed to collect samples and cannot provide advice or recommendations. Without the ability to provide recommendations, the value of the lead testing is limited.
LEAD PAINT TESTING
There are three primary types of testing available for painted materials. As you’ll read below, XRF testing is vastly superior in nearly all situations.
XRF stands for X-ray fluorescence. This works by overwhelming the material with ultra-high, intensified x-rays and measures the secondary x-rays that emit from the surface. XRF testing is quickly becoming the premier method of lead paint testing due to its high accuracy, efficiency, and instantaneous results.
Instant results – Unlike paint chip sampling, XRF guns provide test results in about 30 seconds. No sending samples off to a lab and waiting days for your results.
Sample all surfaces – The speed efficiency of XRF testing allows an inspector to perform 60-70 scans in an hour. For a typical size home, this will cover all surfaces in the house. Sampling every surface with paint chip sampling or a swab kit would take many hours, if not days.
Non-destructive – Both paint chip sampling and swab sampling require the destruction of the surface. You’ll end up creating a dime size hole/divot in every surface you sample. An XRF gun leaves no trace.
Not cost effective for small number of samples – If sampling multiple rooms, XRF testing is cost effective. However, if you’re only concerned about a couple of surfaces (and you don’t mind leaving holes), paint chip sampling is cheaper. Due to the cost of the equipment, XRF testing typically has a minimum charge of 1 hr (around $550) which will cover an average size home.
PAINT CHIP SAMPLING
Paint chip sampling used to be the standard method for lead testing. However, that technique is destructive and requires sanding or scrapping a portion of the paint. Additionally, those samples must then be sent to a lab to an analyzed which puts remodeling on hold for several days until the testing is complete. Using paint chip sampling for lead can be useful for smaller areas where only one or two samples are necessary. Unfortunately, if you’re considering a moderately sized remodel project, it can easily require 10-15 samples which makes the XRF method a clearly superior option.
Accurate – If collected correctly, the lab analysis is accurate. However, even trained professionals find it difficult to collect accurate samples. Homeowners often provide insufficient samples to the laboratory.
Destructive – A full depth chip must be cut out of the suspected surface. This leaves a highly visible pock mark on every surface.
Difficult – Collecting a correct sample requires substantial physical effort. Quite a bit of force is required to cut through 10 layers of paint. Often a full depth cut is not made, leading to false results.
Time consuming – Not only is the collecting of samples a time intensive process, you’ll also have to wait for the lab to analyze your materials.
Paint chip sampling is great for small projects limited to a half dozen or fewer samples. Due to the destructive nature of the testing, it is best suited to pending remodel projects rather than health / risk evaluations.
SWAB STYLE KITS
Many hardware stores sell different types of lead test kits geared toward DIYers. Typically, these use a small swab stick that change color in the presence of lead…at least that is the theory. The EPA recently changed their recommendations after realizing those type of tests resulted inaccuracies. As you can see in the chart below, all lead test kits failed at preventing false positives, and all but one failed at preventing false negatives. Sadly, hardware stores continue to stock these products and still sell thousands as a “more convenient option.”
They’re cheap – Compared to XRF or paint chip sampling, swab kits are definitely the least expensive (unless you consider the cost of false positives…)
False positives – As the EPA has noted, these kits produce a significant quantity of false positives. This leads homeowners to ask contractors to undertake expensive, unnecessary lead safe procedures.
Destructive – For these kits to work accurately, a full depth chip must be cut out of the suspected surface. This leaves a highly visible pock mark on every surface.
Difficult – Collecting a correct sample is not easy. The force required to cut through 10 layers of paint on a wall or trim piece is substantial. Often a full depth cut is not made, leading to false results. Done correctly, it is time consuming.
Types of Lead Inspections
There are three different lead testing services approved by the EPA: lead based paint inspection, risk assessment, and lead hazard screen.
Lead Paint Inspection
According to the EPA, a lead-based paint inspection is defined as:
“a surface by-surface investigation to determine whether there is lead-based paint in the home and where it is located. An inspection may be particularly useful before renovation, repainting, or paint removal.”
Surface by surface investigation means all painted surfaces (interior and exterior), are included. A painted surface can include a wide variety of materials such as paints, shellacs, varnishes, stains and wallpaper. During a lead paint inspection each type of painted surface needs to be tested.
Lead Risk Assessment
A risk assessment takes a lead paint inspection one step further and provides recommendations on techniques to reduce lead exposure. This requires a higher level of certification by the inspector. These types of assessments are especially helpful in identifying lead exposure issues, as opposed to merely identifying the presence of lead. For example, during a risk assessment, the inspector might note the much higher risk posed by a door with lead paint vs. an undisturbed wall. Though they both contain lead, one is much more likely to undergo friction and therefore, create lead dust.
Lead Testing in Your Home
Testing a home for lead often requires hundreds of samples because lead can be on any painted surface. Thankfully, using an XRF Analyzer, these results can be determined on-site without damaging the surface. Older or more custom-made homes, especially those with different features such as crown molding, wainscoting, window trim, etc. will require more samples.
Examples of common materials and surfaces examined during lead testing:
- Walls (1 sample per wall)
- Door Jam
- Door trim
- Window (1 set per room)
- Window trim
- Window sill
- Base trim (1 per room)
- Closets (doors & walls)
- Crown molding
- Floor (if applicable)
LEAD SOIL TESTING
Unfortunately, elevated levels of lead are not restricted to just paint; the surrounding soil can also contain dangerous levels of lead. Lead levels in soil have become a growing concern due to the popularity of home gardens.
Until leaded fuel was banned (mid-1980’s), lead particulates were released from internal combustion engines and landed in exposed soil, causing unsafe levels of lead. The highest concentration tends to occur within a few feet of major roads.
Unfortunately, industrial facilities such as smelter operations are known for releasing large quantities of lead into the environment. Over time, these lead particles fall back down to the ground and contaminate the soil. Asarco Inc. is located in Ruston in Tacoma and is listed as the potential source of a massive, region-wide lead contaminate. Initial estimates of contaminated soil due to smelters in Washington state is around 489,000 acres.
Paint that is chipping, peeling, or generally degrading can contaminate soil around it. This risk is greatly increased when sanding, scraping, or pressure washing techniques are used to remove lead based paint. According to multiple studies, lead levels are at their peak in the soil within 2-3 ft of the building.
Unfortunately, once lead enters the soil, it tends to hang around for a long time. As an example, leaded gasoline was banned years
ago, but elevated levels of lead is still detected in soil near major roads. Lead occurs naturally in the soil, typically, at concentrations of 10 parts per million (ppm), with a total range of 7 to 20 ppm.
Testing for lead in soil
There are two primary methods to test soil for lead: In-situ (on-site) screening and Ex-situ analysis (laboratory). In-situ testing is rendered using an XRF Analyzer pointed directly at the soil. This not only provides quick, real-time results, but it is also fully compliant with US EPA Method 6200 for identifying contamination boundaries in the field.
Ex-situ testing involves taking soil samples from the field and analyzing them off-site. With this technique, multiple soil samples are collected to provide an accurate representation of the area. Although this method provides slower results than in-situ testing, they tend to be more accurate.
Health risks associated with lead-contaminated soil:
Usually, humans are affected by lead in soil from direct ingestion. Lead, in general, is taken into the body by either ingestion (eating) or inhalation (breathing). Children (ages 2-3) are by far at the highest risk of exposure due to their increased sensitivity and higher likelihood of ingestion. The level of lead considered safe for plants is significantly higher than soil that may be directly ingested because plants and vegetables do not easily absorb lead. Besides, some children are at much greater risk from eating contaminated soil than from eating vegetables anyway.
Unfortunately, lead in the soil can also cause elevated levels of lead within the home as well. This happens when children or pets play in the soil and track those fine soil particles into houses as airborne dust, on shoes, clothing, etc. A swipe test (as described above) near the entry points can be helpful identifying if this is an issue in your home.
Within our bodies, lead is absorbed and stored in our bones, blood, and tissues. As we age, our bones demineralize and as a result, they release the stored lead from the bone tissue.
From there, when lead gets inside the body, it can be confused with calcium and other essential nutrients. The body uses the “available” lead after it’s released from the bones thinking it’s the essential nutrients to make bones, muscle, and brain connections and therefore permanent harm to health can occur. The symptoms of lead poisoning may occur slowly or may be caused by other things, so it can be easily overlooked.
A natural part of childhood development is being on the floor, outside in the dirt, touching and tasting just about anything they can get their hand on. This puts them at a higher risk of exposure to lead because if there is dust or dirt with lead in it, children will get it on their hands and fingers and, inevitably, into their mouths.
“Lead is a developmental toxicant” and the “harmful effects of lead on children’s development can occur without signs or symptoms.” ~ Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Lead is most damaging for kids six years and younger because of their accelerated growth rate. Between growing bones, developing stronger muscles and creating many connections in their brain, they are constantly changing. Because they are always developing, even at low levels, lead can be harmful and be associated with:
- Learning disabilities resulting in a decreased intelligence (decreased IQ)
- Attention deficit disorder
- Behavior issues
- Nervous system damage
- Growth delays
High levels of lead can definitely be life threatening, but other severe symptoms include:
- Severe abdominal pain and cramping
- Muscle weakness
- Stumbling when walking
- Encephalopathy (overall brain dysfunction)
Even though we have finished growing, lead exposure is still a valid concern for adults. More lead is needed to cause harm in an adult’s body than a child’s, but the detriment lead can do to an adult is very serious. High levels of lead in adults can cause:
- If pregnant, harm to a fetus, including brain damage or death
- Fertility problems in both men and women
- High blood pressure
- Digestive issues
- Nerve disorders
- Memory and concentration problems
- Muscle and joint pain
When is lead testing recommended?
- If you’re buying a home built before 1979.
- Before you start a remodel project.
- If you live off of a busy street and plan on starting a fruit/vegetable garden.
- Homes with infants and small children.
What is not included in a lead paint inspection?
Typically, an inspection does not assess any non-permanent structures within the home like furniture, kitchen and bathroom cabinets, and built in bookshelves. A general lead paint inspection also doesn’t include soil, dust or water. However, these items can be an important part of evaluating your family’s potential lead exposure so OUR inspectors often include this in a lead inspections.
Are certain types of vegetables or fruits more susceptible to lead contamination?
Yes. Leafy vegetables (lettuce) and root crops (carrots, potatoes, etc) are more likely to carry elevated concentrations of lead. Fruit plants (strawberries, apples, tomatoes, etc.), normally do not accumulate lead.
What steps can I take to prevent lead exposure from my garden?
Proper washing and rinsing is by far the best and easiest technique. It’s a far greater chance that you’ll expose yourself to lead from the actual dust or soil on the vegetables than through absorption into the plant itself. If you’re still concerned, experts take it one step further and recommend peeling all root crops and thoroughly washing any produce with a water and vinegar or soap solution.
What is a safe level of lead in a garden?
According to the University of Minnesota, garden produce can be safely grown in soils with total lead levels under 300 ppm. In Washington State, the unrestricted site use cleanup levels for lead are 250ppm.