Lead Pipes, Lead Paint – Pure Portland Poison. Learn how to test for free – 2020 Update

portland lead paint lead pipes

Lead Paint in Portland

Older Portland homes may be loaded with lead. According to a November 2019 report by the Willamette Week, “The paint on a house from the 1920s or 1930s that’s been repainted about once a decade may contain 50 or 60 pounds of pure lead.” 

Lead Pipes (Drinking Water)

Not only may your Portland home contain lead paint, but in some older homes, lead may also be found in pipes carrying drinking water, and it can also contaminate soil around the home. And, if you haven’t already heard, lead is a hazardous material that’s poisonous even in very small amounts, causing brain damage, cardiovascular and reproductive problems.

That’s the bad news. So what’s the good news?

Lead-control measures are being implemented in Portland. For homeowners, lead is relatively easy to test for, and the City of Portland offers certain tests for free.

Where did all this lead come from?

Lead is a naturally occurring element. Paint makers since the 4th century BC have revered it for its pigmentation, as well as the ability to help paint dry faster, maintain a fresh appearance and resist moisture. Unfortunately, it wasn’t until 1978 that lead-based paint was banned in the United States, despite the dangers of lead being well established for decades prior. 

Lead pipes have similarly ancient beginnings. In fact, the symbol for lead in the periodic table of the elements — Pb — comes from the same latin word that gives us “plumbing”. As a material, it’s stable, easily malleable and resists leaks. Perfect for transporting water — except that it’s also poisonous! 

Why Lead is Dangerous in the Home

  • It’s easily absorbed. Lead can enter the body in two primary ways: Breathing it in or ingesting (eating or drinking) it. Some studies have also found that lead can be absorbed through the skin. 
  • Poisoning is (usually) slow to occur. The body can accumulate lead for years before symptoms are noticeable. Lead is stored in the bones with calcium. In women, that calcium is released during pregnancy, releasing lead with it. This affects the fetus, causing slow development and even premature birth. 
  • Children are more susceptible to lead poisoning. As lead builds up in their system, they will experience impaired cognitive function, including inability to pay attention, learn and remember. Like adults, they can also experience lead poisoning as abdominal pain.

The bottom line is, it’s best to test for lead in your home or environment first, rather than relying on physical symptoms to tell you that it’s there. If you do suspect lead poisoning in yourself or your children, a blood test at the doctor’s office can verify.

Home Sources of Lead

According to the EPA, “Lead was also once used in paint and gasoline and is still used in batteries, solder, pipes, pottery, roofing materials and some cosmetics.”

For the homeowner, paint, soil and pipes are the key concerns. These are the sources of lead most likely to be ingested or inhaled. 

The City of Portland maintains that lead-based paint is the greatest source of lead hazard for homes in the area. While lead-based paint is not usually a problem if it’s in good shape, as soon as it begins deteriorating, they recommend removing it.

How to Test for Lead 

Lead in Portland Soil

Because lead does not break down or biodegrade, it often winds up in soil. Soil can contain lead for any of the following reasons:

  • Lead may naturally occur in the soil
  • Soil can accumulate lead paint chips that may come off of a home’s lead-painted exterior siding
  • Nearby home demolitions (a regular occurrence in Portland) may send lead-based paint dust into the air, where it settles on soil.
  • Lead particulates from the exhaust of cars running off leaded gasoline (which was banned in the mid-1980s) land on soil and stay there. 

If you’re concerned that your home’s soil may contain elevated amounts of lead, you can gather a sample and send it to a lab for testing.

Lead in Portland Paint

According to the EPA, 87% of homes built before 1940 contain lead-based paint. Any home built before 1978 may also have it. Before doing any work in these homes that involves disturbing paint, or if paint is chipping, peeling or damp, they recommend finding out if the paint contains lead first.

The most effective way to find out if your home has lead-based paint is to hire a certified lead-based paint inspector or a risk assessor. For qualified low and moderate income households in the Portland area, the Portland Regional Lead Hazard Control Program provides a free evaluation of lead hazards and financial assistance to remedy the problem.

DIY home testing kits are affordable, but their results are limited. These tests can only tell you if lead is present on a surface, and they don’t indicate the level of lead present — but for most homeowners, it’s a good starting point. 

The kits, available at most hardware stores, contain a chemical activator that you rub onto the paint surface. If it changes color, that means lead is present. 

It’s important to test every surface you work on; just because one wall is safe, doesn’t mean that one in another room will be. Sanding or scraping off even a bit of lead-based paint can create a hazard for you and your family.

Lead in Portland Water

According to the Portland Water Bureau, there are very few sources of lead in Portland’s drinking water system. However, in 2016, 14 of 112 homes tested were found to have high levels of lead in their water. What happened? 

The problem wasn’t lead so much as pH. When water is more acidic, it corrodes the pipes in older homes that contain lead. As a result of this high lead incident, the city of Portland began treating the water to give it a higher pH. So far, it seems to be working, but homeowners can still get a free test to see if their home has elevated levels of lead. Go to www.leadline.org or call 503-988-4000.

This post on home health hazards has been brought to you by Portland’s top real estate team. We’re committed to informing buyers and sellers on all aspects of home ownership, investments and the real estate market.

November 25, 2019

Stephen FitzMaurice

Stephen FitzMaurice, Realtor is a top 5% real estate agent in the U.S. A Principal Broker in Oregon, Managing Broker in Washington, he has been licensed since 2003 for residential real estate sales. Call his team in Oregon at 503-714-1111 or in Washington at 360-345-3833.

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