WARNING: Lead found in chippy old paint is hazardous!

Restoring vintage treasures can be a very rewarding and fun endeavor. To see what was once richly loved, now forgotten, be reassigned a new value and revived to it’s former beauty…who wouldn’t be captivated by the transformation!? If you are like me, it’s the old items with chippy paint that really catch my eye.

Recently my mom and I went to an antique auction in hopes of acquiring some of these old chippy treasures. We wasted no time. After the truck was unloaded we jumped right in and started sanding our auction gems. When I say we were coated in sawdust, this is no exaggeration. It looked like I had rolled down a sand dune of sawdust.

We had a blast and we also learned a VERY important lesson that day. One which really isn’t spoken about much in the DIY, house flipping, vintage restoration circuit. A big factor called lead paint. Unfortunately, it wasn’t until later that evening when we started researching the age of our new found treasures, that we were alerted to the high probability this sawdust we were coated in contained lead.

Before sanding antique check for lead paint
Check out this mantel we found dating back to 1922!

While lead paint was widely used prior to 1978, not ALL paint contained this special little ingredient. The tricky thing about lead paint is there is no way to tell with the naked eye if your thrifty antique is contaminated or not. Not unless you test it.

test old furniture for lead paint

Testing for lead is easy and inexpensive. There really is no excuse NOT to test your project prior to restoration. All you need is some distilled white vinegar and a lead test cotton swab. There are many lead test kits on the market. I ordered a pack off Amazon due to the large number of test worthy surfaces in my home, but smaller quantity can be purchased elsewhere. Just make sure your test indicates both positive AND negative results, likely in the form of a visible color change.

test for lead paint

Dip your swab into the vinegar. Notice the swab turns a yellow color. This is good and means you’re ready to test! Rub the saturated swab on the painted object you are testing. If the swab or object turns pink, violet, or red you have lead. If the swab and object stay yellow or have no color change, it’s lead free.

EXAMPLE 1: My beautiful mantel dating back to 1922. Notice how both the mantel and the cotton swab turned a deep red. DEFINITELY lead positive!

test for lead paint

EXAMPLE 2: Another mantel, dating back to 1909. It’s faint, but this light pink discoloration indicates this mantel is lead positive.

test for lead paint

EXAMPLE 3: Old windows we acquired at the auction. By looking at these I would have thought they were both positive or both negative, but they weren’t. This goes to show there is no way to tell if lead is present other than testing it.

– Lead paint wasn’t banned until 1978!
– When consumed, can be incredibly harmful with a wide range of symptoms.
– It is especially harmful to children and women who are pregnant.
– Adults have a greater probability of processing and eliminating lead.
– Lead is detected in the blood but travels to the bones.
– It is not living, therefore, it cannot reproduce or multiply in your body.
– Lead is not harmful to touch, only to ingest (such as breathing in dust particles).
– Symptoms might not manifest overnight, so if you think you were exposed to lead, get tested and find out BEFORE symptoms show up.

Not to panic. I say this to give you the information I gathered and wish I would have known prior to some scary Google searches. If you think you have been exposed to lead paint, go to the doctor and get a lead blood level test. From here the doctor will know if you need treatment or if your blood needs to be retested over a given period of time.

For example, after an afternoon of unknowingly breathing in lead sawdust, my lead blood level was 2 ug/dL. With a lead level of 2, there was no action required, rather a follow up blood test a few months later. HIGH lead levels which require treatment are 44+ ug/dL. Anything over 5 ug/dL will be looked at closely and your doctor might recommend a form of treatment or continue to test your blood over time to see where your lead level plateaus.

Lead test kit

The most important thing is to test your project prior to restoration. If your product does contain lead, either seal in the lead with wax or paint or use a paint thinner to strip away the old paint as opposed to sanding. Make sure to throw away/clean thoroughly any materials used and ALWAYS wear a mask!!!

test for lead paint
This 100 year old window needs a heavy coat of wax to seal in the chippy lead paint!

Let this serve as a precautionary guide to keep you safe in all your vintage restoration endeavors!

Share your thoughts or questions!