Lead Renovation, Repair and Painting: A Guide for States on the Federal Renovation, Repair and Painting Rule

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Cover of publication: Lead Renovation, Repair and Painting


Lead, one the 95 naturally occurring elements found on earth, has many properties that make it an attractive industrial metal. Because it is soft and malleable but heavy, lead can be used to add heft to materials or shaped into useful products.

Lead has been used since ancient times. The Egyptians used lead glazes to strengthen pottery and the Romans used lead pipes to supply water into and through their cities. But for just as long, people have known about the danger of using lead because it can cause madness and neurological disorders.

Although he wrote about the toxicity of lead, early Roman physician Celsus also suggested lead’s importance and use in a range of ointments to stop wounds from bleeding and reduce inflammation of the extremities. Memecrates, physician to the Roman emperor Tiberius, prescribed a paste of lead oxide and olive oil to treat various skin disorders.

Early forms of lead were used for decorative purposes because of its colors, and for more than 2000 years lead has been a key ingredient in some varieties of glass. Both modern flint glass (originally a Chinese invention) and crystal have a lead component.

In the United States, lead poisoning caused by lead-tainted rum first became a public health issue in the 1700’s. Colonial Americans distilled their rum in containers that included a “worm.”  After people who drank the rum began to lose use of their hands (from the affects of the lead on their nervous system), rum distilleries were prohibited from using leaden still-heads and worms.

Printers who used lead type also suffered from its effects. Even Ben Franklin, in a letter to a friend, warned him to be careful of lead, because it had “baneful particles and qualities.”

In addition to its use in water pipes and in medicines, for medical instruments, as a preservative in food or drink enhancer, lead became critical in American industry. Uses of lead multiplied as industry discovered the value of its properties in production. By the beginning of the 20th century, lead was used in gasoline to eliminate engine “knock” and in paint to increase resiliency and brighten colors. The famous “Dutch Boy” was created to promote the attributes of lead-based paint.

Lead has been used in paint for centuries. In addition to its role as a pigment, it was used to speed the drying process and limit moisture. When covered with lead-based paint, walls stay cleaner and last longer.2  When lead was becoming more widely used in the United States, however, other countries took a different view. Australia, followed by France, Belgium, Austria, New Zealand and South Africa, restricted or banned the use of lead in paints and other consumer products, especially residential paints, because of the danger it posed to human health, particularly in young children. 

Federal laws and regulations protect contractors and homeowners during renovation, repair and painting of pre-1978 housing and buildings. Learn about the hazards of lead poisoning; the federal laws that protect children from these hazards; the recent EPA regulation on renovation and repair work; and state options and responses.