How to Identify Lead Paint in Your Home: 5 Steps

5 signs you may have lead paint in your home.

If you’re living in, purchasing, or renovating an old home, you might be concerned about you or your family being exposed to lead paint.

In this article, we’ll discuss how to identify lead paint in your home and what you can do about it.

Why Is Lead Paint Dangerous?

According to the EPA, lead is a neurotoxin that can cause a variety of health problems. It’s especially dangerous for young children, as elevated blood lead levels can result in developmental, behavioral, and learning deficiencies.

For pregnant women, exposure to lead has been associated with increased risks of miscarriage, low birth weight, and impaired neurodevelopment.

How Can You Identify Lead Paint?

Although you might suspect that you have some lead paint in your home, there’s no way to be 100% sure without a proper lead inspection.

This usually involves an EPA-certified inspector using a special tool called an XRF analyzer. X-ray fluorescence (XRF) analysis fires x-ray beams into a paint sample and then measures the resulting energy signatures to determine how much lead is present.

Lead inspectors use handheld XRF analyzers, which resemble radar guns, to methodically check all painted surfaces. A measurement of more than 0.5 milligrams of lead per square centimeter is considered positive for lead-based paint.

But how do you know if you should get a lead inspection?

Here are 5 steps you can take — and signs you can look for — to help identify possible lead paint:

  1. Know when your home was built
  2. Recognize the symptoms of lead
  3. Look for signs of damaged paint
  4. Check for sub-layers of paint
  5. Home lead test kits

These steps will help you determine the approximate risk of having lead paint in your home or building.

Keep in mind that the dangers of lead paint is greater for households with young children (see step 2), who are more likely to come into contact with chipped paint or lead dust.

Generally, lead paint that isn’t damaged or chipping (see step 3) isn’t considered hazardous, unless it’s on a “high-risk surface” that gets a lot of wear-and-tear, such as window sills, door frames, stairs, railings, banisters, and porches.

If you live in an apartment in New York City and there’s a child under 6 in your household, your landlord is required to annually inspect and repair all lead paint hazards (per Local Law 1).

#1 – Know When Your Home Was Built

The sale of lead paint for residential use was banned in New York City in 1960, and it was banned across the entire United States in 1978. As a rule of thumb, if your home was built before 1978 you should assume that lead paint was used.

The data backs this up — according to the EPA, approximately half of homes built before 1978 have lead paint. And the older the home is, the more likely it is to have lead paint. For homes built before 1940, the chance of containing lead paint is almost 9 out of 10.

If you’re not sure when your home was built, you can try asking the previous owner, seller, or landlord. The Lead-Based Paint Disclosure Rule (Section 1018 of Title X) requires sellers and landlords to disclose any information about potential lead paint hazards in housing built before 1978.

If your home was built after 1978, you shouldn’t rule out lead paint either.

Although it was illegal to sell lead paint after 1978, its actual usage was still in a gray area for many years. It’s a known fact that some builders and painters stored and used lead-based paint throughout the 1980’s and even the early 1990’s.

#2 – Recognize the Symptoms of Lead

Recognizing the early symptoms of lead poisoning is another way to identify lead paint. If you live in an older home and your family is experiencing symptoms, it’s very likely that lead paint is the cause.

However, lead poisoning doesn’t have a single telltale symptom — it can present in many different and often nonspecific ways. Typical early symptoms of lead paint exposure include:

  • Headaches
  • Nausea and fatigue
  • Intermittent abdominal pain
  • Muscle pain
  • Loss of appetite
  • Diarrhea or constipation
  • Depression, memory loss, and personality change
  • Weakness, pain, or tingling in the extremities

Young children are especially at risk when it comes to lead. Not only can lead exposure cause developmental problems, but children are more susceptible to being exposed to lead from touching and ingesting paint chips or lead dust.

Additional symptoms of elevated blood lead levels in children include irritability, learning difficulties, and behavioral issues.

For more information about common symptoms of lead poisoning in children, babies, adults, and pets, check out our article: Signs and Symptoms of Lead Poisoning at Home.

#3 – Look For Signs of Damaged Paint

Lead-based paint is only hazardous if it’s damaged or deteriorating. Well-maintained paint, even if it contains lead, is not an immediate danger to your health (unless it’s on a high-risk surface).

If you’re trying to identify lead paint, start by looking for areas with damaged paint. That’s where your concern about lead paint risks should be the highest. Damaged paint produces lead-contaminated dust and paint chips that may be accidentally inhaled or ingested.

A common misconception is that lead paint deteriorates in a distinctive way, referred to as “alligatoring.” This describes a pattern of cracking paint on a surface that resembles the scales of an alligator. Alligatoring is not actually unique to lead paint — however, it does indicate that the paint is old, and old paint is more likely to contain lead.

Signs of damaged paint (lead paint hazards) include:

  • Peeling
  • Chipping
  • Chalking
  • Cracking
  • Dampness
  • Bubbling
  • Teeth marks

Lead paint on certain “high-risk surfaces” is also considered hazardous, even when it’s not damaged or deteriorating. These surfaces are especially susceptible to wear and tear due to friction, impact, moisture, or chewing.

For example, pay extra attention to paint near doorways and windowsills which is likely to chip due to frictional contact. Places with a lot of moisture, such as bathroom and basement walls, are also more likely to exhibit paint deterioration due to steam or condensation.

Other high-risk surfaces include baseboards, stairs, railings, banisters, and porches

#4 – Check for Sub-Layers of Paint

Another sign that points to lead paint is if you notice multiple layers of paint present on surfaces, especially in older, pre-1978 buildings.

Stripping off old paint can be a cumbersome task, so some people opt to paint over it instead. Although you may see a fresh, clean-looking coat of paint on the surface, it might be worth looking deeper if you suspect or are concerned about lead paint hazards.

Especially in places where paint is already damaged or chipping, you might find sub-layers of paint underneath. These are old coatings that have been painted over during repair or renovation. For the same reasons as above, the older the paint, the more likely it contains lead.

In general, you should assume that paint is lead-based if sub-layers of paint are found on a surface in buildings constructed before 1978.

#5 – Home Lead Test Kits

If there’s a strong suspicion or concern about lead paint, you might consider buying an at-home lead test kit. Lead test kits use special chemicals that change color to indicate the presence of lead paint.

Although they are relatively quick and inexpensive, home lead test kits are not considered very accurate or reliable. You should never rely on these tests to definitively confirm or rule out the presence of lead paint. That said, you can consider the results in combination with the signs above to help decide your next steps.

The EPA’s Lead Renovation, Repair and Painting (RRP) Rule was established in 2008 to set performance criteria for lead test kits, including thresholds for both false positives and false negatives. While there aren’t any lead test kits that meet both criteria yet, the EPA has currently recognized 3 lead test kits with less than a 5% rate of false negatives. In other words, there’s less than a 5% chance — or 1 out of 20 cases — that these tests will give a negative result when the paint actually contains lead.

The three EPA-recognized lead test kits are:

However, another limitation of home test kits to be aware of is that they can only detect lead in the outermost layer of paint. If you have multiple layers, lead paint that is covered up by newer paint will not be detected.

For more information about home lead test kits, check out our article: How to Test for Lead Paint: 3 Types of Lead Paint Testing.

Need Help Identifying or Removing Lead Paint Hazards?

If you have questions or concerns about lead paint, Green Orchard Group is here to help.

We are a certified lead inspection & remediation firm in New York City, with over 25 years of experience helping families and organizations like the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) identify, assess, and remediate lead.