How to Identify Lead Paint and What to Do About it

Lead paint was used in homes throughout the 19th century to speed up drying and maintain appearance. It was phased out later due to its dangers to human health. Lead-based paints have been banned in the United States since 1978 due to their significant health risks.

Although not used any longer, lead paint is still present in millions of older homes throughout the United States, and it can pose serious health risks as it deteriorates or is disturbed during a renovation.

The United States Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Office of Lead Hazard Control and Healthy Homes (OLHCHH) released findings on lead levels in American housing in the report “American Healthy Homes Survey II Lead Findings.” 

The survey measured levels of lead-based paint-associated hazards, pesticides, formaldehyde, and mold in a sample of homes nationwide. According to the findings, 34.6 million homes contain at least some lead-based paint. 

But how can you identify lead-based paint in your home? And how do you know what to look for? This article provides a detailed guide to what lead paint looks like and how to remediate it to avoid health problems.

What is lead paint?

“Lead paint” and “lead-based paint” are used to describe any paint that contains lead. 

Lead paint was nearly ubiquitous in residential homes in the late 1800s and early 1900s. It was an inexpensive and widely available ingredient that was added to paints to speed up drying and make them more resistant to moisture. 

What are the health risks of lead paint?

When a person inhales lead dust particles, they can end up with serious and sometimes fatal consequences. 

Lead is a neurotoxin that can cause permanent brain damage. It can injure soft tissues and organs, cause permanent nerve damage, and negatively affect blood formation. High levels of lead exposure can lead to seizures, coma, and death.

Lead poisoning can be hard to detect because even people who seem healthy can have high blood levels of lead. Symptoms usually don’t appear until dangerous amounts of lead have accumulated in the body.

The following symptoms could mean that a person has been exposed to lead:

  • Headaches 
  • High blood pressure
  • Abdominal issues 
  • Nausea
  • Joint and muscle pain
  • Memory problems
  • Mood swings 

Lead poisoning can be acute, meaning that symptoms are apparent quicker or long-term. In acute lead poisoning, sufferers may experience symptoms like anemia, weakness, and even kidney and brain damage. 

Lead poisoning symptoms in children

Signs and symptoms of lead poisoning in children include:

  • Learning difficulties
  • Irritability
  • Loss of appetite
  • Weight loss
  • Seizures
  • Sluggishness and fatigue
  • Abdominal pain
  • Vomiting
  • Hearing loss
  • Eating things, such as paint chips, that aren’t food (pica)

How to identify lead paint 

There are a few main reasons you would suspect that you have lead paint. 

The first and most likely clue is that you have a home built pre-1978, the year lead paint was banned. 

Although there’s no way to determine whether paint contains lead by looking at it, you can check for common indicators of lead paint. 

Look at the condition of the paint  

The condition of the paint could offer a clue whether it contains lead. One of the telltale signs of lead in paint is “alligatoring,” which looks like reptilian scales when the layer starts to crack and wrinkle.

If paint creates a chalky residue when it rubs off, it could also contain lead. It can be tough to spot chalkiness if the original paint has new layers on top of it. Look inside the areas that could still have the original paint, like closets or baseboards. If you notice the signs listed above, you should hire a specialist to conduct a test.

Talk to the owner of the home or the previous owners

If you are a renter, talk to your landlord about the age of the home to find out if there is lead-based paint inside the property. If you are a homeowner, ask the previous owners if they know about lead-based paint in the house.

Check if the paint is deteriorating

Check if the paint on stairways or doors is peeling, flaking off, or deteriorating. It’s also a good idea to check other areas where paint can have a lot of wear and tear. Lead-based paint releases lead dust as it breaks down, posing a serious health risk.

Testing for lead paint

Lead paint is easy to test for. With a quick trip to your local hardware store or online, you can order test kits for under $20. 

Once you have your kit, follow the specific instructions for carrying out the test. You will need to take a sample of the paint and submerge it in a test liquid or use the swab that your test kit provides. 

The other option is to have a professional administer one of the three EPA-approved tests. The cost of this will vary based on your location. 

If the paint in your home tests positive for lead, you should handle the issue as soon as possible. While it may not be feasible for you to vacate your home when you find out that a lead paint test is positive, you should do so as soon as possible. Hire a qualified crew that can replace lead paint on interior walls, and they’ll tell you how long it will take to complete your project. 

Do home inspectors check for lead paint? 

Home inspectors are trained to assess the quality and condition of the main components of your home. Those are the foundation, HVAC, electrical, plumbing, and roof. While lead paint is certainly a concern for safety in your home, it isn’t something your inspector will test. 

A home inspector will let you know, based on your home’s age and the paint’s condition, if you should be concerned about it being lead-based. If your inspector thinks it could contain lead, they will recommend that you have it tested by a professional. 

Your home inspector may refer you to a lead abatement specialist, or you can find a certified professional here

How much does a lead inspection cost?

Depending on the size of your home, a lead paint test can cost anywhere from $250 to $700. When you get in touch with a certified inspector in your area, they’ll be able to give you a more accurate estimate based on the extent of the issue.

What to do if you discover lead paint

If you find lead-based paint in your home, you must remove it, encapsulate it, or enclose it. If you have a small area with lead paint, you could remove it independently, but you would need to take specific measures to ensure you stay safe. You must buy protective equipment, tape off adjoining rooms with plastic sheeting, and use a special HEPA vacuum (not your home vacuum with a HEPA filter).

The best option is to hire a licensed lead abatement contractor with the right skills and proper gear to do the work. 

Your specialist could choose several methods of lead paint removal depending on the area of your home. They could be wire brushing, wet hand scraping with liquid remover or a low-temperature heat gun, or wet sanding with a high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA)-filtered vacuum.


A contractor will encapsulate the affected areas by brushing or applying a special coating to create a watertight seal. 


This method involves covering old surfaces with new ones. Putting up new drywall and covering windows with aluminum or vinyl cladding covers up the affected surface. But if you remove the enclosure, the lead-based paint will still be underneath.

Lead paint is a serious health hazard that is not always obvious. Although there are some telltale signs of lead paint, an average homeowner can’t always identify lead paint with the naked eye.

Your best bet is to contact a professional with the experience and the right tools. They can diagnose the problem and remove lead paint from your home before it causes health issues for you or your family.