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  Sierra Magazine
  March/April 2005
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Sierra Magazine
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The Hidden Life of...House Paint
by Sidney Stevens

Reader feedback
Sierra responds to questions about septic systems and vacuuming lead paint.

Dear Editors,

In "The Hidden Life of House Paint" (March/April 2005), you mentioned cleaning up brushes and rollers by rinsing them in an interior drain "so the wastes will be treated at a sewage plant." What about homeowners who have septic systems and leach fields? Also, my parents sanded and painted their pre-1978 home themselves. They insisted that regular vacuuming would take care of any lead-paint dust. Is it hazardous for my young children (ages eight, six, and one) to visit occasionally? Thank you for your efforts on the environment. Our membership is money well spent. I look forward to your articles and share them with friends. My neighbor and I discuss them regularly. Gifts of memberships are what everyone is getting for Christmas!
Heather in York, Maine

Dear Heather,

Thanks for your interest in Sierra and for sharing our work so enthusiastically with your friends. We consulted with the author of "The Hidden Life of House Paint" to try and answer your questions. If you have a septic system, it may be better to wash paintbrushes outside than to use inside sinks. The North Dakota Department of Health gives this advice for latex paint: "Wash your brushes with soap and water. Small amounts of latex will not hurt the sanitary sewer. But always avoid putting any chemical into your septic system or storm sewer. It's better to wash brushes on the lawn than to use your septic system."

Vacuuming is not sufficient to get rid of lead dust. Many vacuums, even some with a high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filter, allow tiny particles to escape, and you can end up with more airborne particles than you started with. The dust itself, never mind the lead, is difficult on anyone's lungs but more so for children, the elderly, and people with respiratory problems. It's best to have a professional handle the renovations and cleanup. If you must do work yourself in areas where you know or suspect lead-based paint is present, the National Lead Information Center recommends that you take the following precautions:

  • Relocate children and pregnant women to another apartment or house until work is completed and the area is properly cleaned.
  • Cover exposed areas. Small ones, such as electrical outlets, can be easily covered until repairs and cleanup are completed. If you are working on a large area -- e.g., tearing down a wall -- use plastic sheeting to seal off duct entrances and protect furniture, carpets, rugs, and floors.
  • Dispose of everything carefully. To keep dust down, wet painted surfaces before you work on them.
  • Clean up thoroughly. Always use wet mops or rags soaked in a warm-water solution of trisodium phosphate (TSP) or a powdered dishwasher detergent with a high-phosphate content. Most multipurpose household detergents are not effective for cleaning up lead dust.
  • To avoid skin irritation when cleaning, wear protective gloves. Most TSP or detergent solutions contain lye, a caustic that can burn your skin. Use two buckets--one for washing and one for rinsing. Always wring dirty water into the wash-water bucket.
  • To prevent contamination of cleaned surfaces, wash mops and rags thoroughly after each use. If this is not possible, or if you have already used the mops and rags several times, place them in plastic bags and dispose of them carefully. Avoid sweeping or vacuuming the work area, which can spread the lead dust. If repairs or renovations are already occurring in or around your home, the lead center recommends that you:
  • Keep children away from paint dust and chips. Mop up all dust and chips, as described above. Pay special attention to windowsills and wells (where the bottom of the sash rests when the window is closed).
  • Close your windows if work is going on outside that may scatter lead dust--for example, a neighbor is scraping exterior paint. Using wet mops and rags, clean up any dust that has gotten into your home.
  • Have children under age six tested for lead. To arrange for testing, call your doctor or local health department.

You can get more information by calling the National Lead Information Center at 1-800-LEAD-FYI or by visiting the EPA's lead info Web page. Hope that helps!
The Editors


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