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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 TESTING

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. Plus, it’s non-destructive so no sanding, scraping, or exposing the lead is necessary. However, this technology isn’t cheap, an XRF Analyzer can easily exceed $20,000 per scanning gun.

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 require 10-15 samples which makes the XRF method a clearly superior option.

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.”

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LEAD PAINT INSPECTION

There are three different lead testing services approved by the EPA: lead based paint inspection, risk assessment, and lead hazard screen.

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 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.

Leaded Gasoline

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.

Industrial Generators

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.

Deteriorating Paint

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.

Health risks associated with lead contaminated 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.

Testing for lead in soil

Usually, humans are affect 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.

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.

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This is an example of the typical locations we end up testing on a single floor of a home.

 Examples of common materials and surfaces examined during lead testing:

  • Ceiling
  • Walls (1 sample per wall)
  • Door
  • Door Jam
  • Door trim
  • Window (1 set per room)
  • Window trim
  • Window sill
  • Base trim (1 per room)
  • Wainscoting
  • Closets (doors & walls)
  • Crown molding
  • Floor (if applicable)

Health Effects

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.

Children

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
  • Vomiting
  • Muscle weakness
  • Stumbling when walking
  • Seizures
  • Coma
  • Encephalopathy (overall brain dysfunction)

Adults

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

FAQs

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.