Homes built shortly after 1978 aren't necessarily safe from lead paint

Lead paint is present in hundreds of NYCHA units citywide. AP Photo.

Lead paint is present in hundreds of NYCHA units citywide. AP Photo.

By Chip Glennon

Special to the Eagle

The matter of lead paint in homes feels like it was done and dusted years ago, but it is not.

In fact, millions of houses in the United States still have lead paint that could pose health problems for residents. 1978 is a year that many may recognize as the moment in which the US government stepped in to address this issue.

This may lead some to believe that any home built after this year will have no chance of containing lead — but this is not necessarily the case. The original 1978 ban on lead paint only placed limits on manufacture and sale, not use. As such, households and home buyers with structures built on or shortly after that time may also need to consider their properties at risk for lead.

The History of Lead Paint Regulation

Since 1978, people could not legally buy lead paint in the U.S. Millions of homes already had lead paint, however, which complicated the matter. For homeowners, there are several laws and regulations concerning the handling of homes with lead paint:

  • Manufacturers cannot produce or sell lead-based paint.

  • Professionals who perform inspections or lead abatement must receive proper training in removal.

  • Owners of homes built pre-1978 must notify buyers of the house’s potential for lead paint.

  • Cities have to conform to standards concerning levels of lead in paint, water, and soil.

Since most of the properties that might have lead paint are private, local and federal government organizations only have so much control over abatement. This means that even though lead paint has been illegal for decades, there are millions of tons of it still in U.S. residences.

Lead paint was popular because it carried color well, lasted a long time and looked great. Once it is on the wall, porch, or windowsill, it tends to stay there. It is a common practice for homeowners and even painting professionals to simply cover an existing coat of paint with a layer of primer or more paint. Unlike a piece of furniture, home appliance or faucet, people often do not remove paint unless they have a vital reason to do so.

In 1992, Congress passed legislation making recommendations for lead abatement in all homes built prior to 1980. At the time, they estimated that about 3.8 million homes still contained lead paint. These laws led to the creation of multiple programs designed to help residential and commercial property owners handle the threat of lead paint. However, since home lead abatement requires an individual homeowner’s knowledge and agreement, it has only been moderately effective.

Continued Use of Lead Paint After 1978

Even though the U.S. banned the manufacturing and sale of lead paint over 40 years ago, the truth is that some contractors continued to use it for years afterward. Most experts recommend keeping paint in cans only for the job, then taking the remainder to a recycling center for disposal. As many homeowners are well aware, though, paint can remain useful in cans for much longer than that. In fact, people might use paint that they bought a decade before.

In the case of lead paint, this is particularly true. At the time it was banned, many professional painters and homeowners stocked up on it because they liked it better than the alternatives available at the time.

Chip Glennon  is the owner and broker associate of Chip Glennon Real Estate Experts. Photo courtesy of Glennon.

Chip Glennon is the owner and broker associate of Chip Glennon Real Estate Experts. Photo courtesy of Glennon.

As a result, home inspectors sometimes find lead paint in homes that were not built until the 1990s. Once it is put on the wall, it may survive there more or less indefinitely.

At first glance, 1978 can seem like a good cut-off date for large projects involving lead inspection/remediation for things like apartments public housing. However, if a building was constructed/painted in 1979 or 1980, is the likelihood of it containing lead low enough to justify not testing for it? What about 1985?

Establishing hard rules like this can be difficult, as different regions may be affected in different ways. Similarly to how sellers must disclose a home's potential for lead paint if it is built before 1978, perhaps owners should disclose the small chance that lead may be present in a home built from 1978 to 1985.

The ways that city and state governments might address this problem would depend on a number of factors and, until more research is conducted on the presence of lead in homes built post-1978, this is all estimation and guess-work.

What does this mean for at-risk households?

When buying or renting a home, it could be faulty for households to assume every structure built after 1978 is 100% lead-free. At present, sellers who own homes built prior to 1978 are required to notify buyers that the home may have lead paint due entirely to its age. Landlords typically have similar rules regarding lead paint diclosure. What buyers do with this information is generally left to them.

Lead poisoning can be virtually silent until it reaches a critical level. In fact, people might not notice a problem for years before they sustain serious health issues.

This is partly due to the fact that certain parts of the population are more susceptible to negative effects of lead exposure. In particular, developing fetuses, infants, and children may suffer the most. Inhalation or consumption of lead leads to developmental delays.

Lead paint poses a unique threat to children, who may crawl around on floors with paint dust, or chew on a windowsill that contains old lead paint.

Given that lead paint might have been used in homes built as late as the mid-1990s, households with young children or pregnant mothers might consider arranging for lead testing in homes constructed in the years after the ban.

When households consider how lead paint can put them and their families at risk, they may prefer to take caution with homes built in the early 1980s instead of having a hard cut-off at 1978.

Chip Glennon is the owner and broker associate of Chip Glennon Real Estate Experts.