Lead Paint Mania – Are we going Overboard?

Oldtimer Speaks Out Says This: 

Yes! We are Paranoid

I’ve been watching with interest the Toy recalls.   I think we are overdosing with fear over very little risk.   Let me say up front, we should not tolerate toys that have any lead in their parts or paint but I think the correct reaction is to remove them from the shelves, ship them back to the manufacturer at their expense and ban further shipments from that manufacturer until we are satisfied they have changed their paints… but no recall unless there are actual lead parts in place and/or the paint is contaminated to some very high level.   Most toys in these recalls have very little.

I’ve had considerable exposure to hazardous materials over my 70 years and if you believed the hype over some of these materials, I should not be here today.   My point is not that these materials are not dangerous – they are dangerous – but that we should use some common sense for the handling of the materials already in place from years ago and for the handling of materials that are in minuscule quantities found in products being sold.

My experiences with lead:

As a 70 year old I’ve had my share of lead contamination in my life.  I can recall helping my dad scrape the chalky white paint from the sides of our house and a couple of rental houses  several times when I was a youngster.   White paint was white in those days due to the deliberate use of lead as a whitener and our interior walls, trim and exterior walls were all made with leaded paint.  Lead oxidizes as it ages to a nice white color.  Sometimes the paint was heated with blowtorches and specialized irons to soften it.  Other times it was power or hand sanded or simply chiseled.  The idea was to get as much as possible off the walls to get an even coat of more leaded paint.  As a result, we and the ground around us would end up chalky white.

I’ve carried and crushed lead pellets in my mouth, crimped fishing weights with my teeth and used highly leaded paint for many toy projects.  It was common for all sorts of toys to have a large content of lead or be entirely made of lead.   Pot metal, although mostly zinc, also had a high content of lead.   Many types of toy jewelry and badges/toy cars, weights were made of almost pure lead.   Most of this activity was about 60 years ago.

I have done a lot of soldering using tin/lead alloys for the solder.   It was the best all around product and part of the procedure was to draw the solder wire through your mouth to straighten it, as usually both hands were full.  I’ve worked in labs with liquid solder for floating circuit boards to get a quick even solder.   All the electrical components came tinned with leaded solder.

 I’m still here!  After all that, I managed to get a 3.8 GPA in a masters program at Georgia Tech after a 3.4 GPA in the undergraduate program (4.0 max scale).   If you’ve looked at my Quantum Weird blog, you may note that I still have some intelligence left.

I’m fully aware that lead is a dangerous metal and also aware that it is thought to be particularly dangerous to the developing child.   I’m sure that some are more sensitive to the effects than others.   All I’m saying is that we should indeed ban it for all painting purposes and for all children’s toys, but we should also not panic and throw away a toy just because it has some minuscule amount of lead content in its paint.  It is my opinion that the collective amount of lead in the paint of a small toy is unlikely to be of any danger at all, even if completely licked/chewed off and eaten.  Don’t faint!  I’m saying our recalls are too strict.

My experiences with mercury: 

As a child around the ages of 10 to 14 it was common play among us boys to spring for a mercury thermometer (about 10 cents) and break the bulb to get a few drops of the liquid metal.   Not only was it fun to watch it roll around in the palm of your hand, it was well known that if you coated a coin in the mercury, it would be exceptionally shiny.  Part of the procedure we all knew was to pop the mercury coated coin in our mouth and thoroughly swab the mercury around the coin between tongue and cheek for hours on end.    I once had several going at one time.   Most of this activity was about 60 years ago, concurrent with my heavy lead exposure.  No apparent harm done.

Later when I worked at a large aircraft company, I worked in the calibration laboratory which, among other things, calibrated pressure gages using mercury tubes to measure the pressure.   We had tubes of about 1/2 inch diameter that ran in a glass u-tube in two columns about 16 feet in height.  It was a common accident to apply too much pressure and blow the mercury out of the tubes or perhaps to accidentally break the tube. 

The result was large quantities of mercury pooling in various corners of the laboratory.  We would sweep it into pools and try to collect it on thin sheets of plastic and finally pour it back into a bottle of some sort.  You could move a cabinet and find a pool of mercury that had been in our tightly enclosed laboratory for years.  We kept many pounds of mercury in our cabinets for refills.   One technician actually used a vacuum cleaner that he borrowed from the janitor to clean up a large quantity of mercury.    The cleaner fell apart because the pot metal for the housing deteriorated from the mercury exposure.   All this was some 40 to 50 years ago.

I’m still here! I have no ill effects resulting from this heavy mercury exposure.

I have seen news items where a small mercury thermometer was broken and the result was the complete evacuation of an entire multi-story business building.   What a waste.  We need to be realistic as to the quantities involved and the ultimate risk to our health.  Some common sense needs to be used.  Mercury should not be allowed in the presence of children, but to post elaborate disposal methods for fluorescent lights and the handling of broken ones is a bit too much.    

My experience with asbestos:

As a child we had no gas appliances.   Early on, we cooked with wood and heated with wood or, most often, coal.  The pot belly stove used for heating our side of the duplex where we first lived in Marietta in the 1940’s was surrounded on 3 sides with large panels of asbestos in a mat like form.  These were 3 by 5 foot sheets of asbestos tacked to the walls to protect the nook the stove was positioned in.   Not painted, not protected in any way.  

Later when the gas company brought gas to our neighborhood, the coal burning stove was removed and the space was used for storage or sometimes for a washing machine for those with that kind of money.    The asbestos stayed in that corner for more than 10 years before I removed it by peeling it off with a flat iron pry bar.  It came off in chunks and clouds of dust.   That was about 40 years ago.  Altogether I removed about 18 sheets of the stuff from various houses.    No masks, no special protection.

In addition, the stack from the coal stove and later the floor furnace was wrapped in asbestos tape.  Later removed by me or sometimes covered with metal foil. 

My biggest exposure was when I dismantled a country kitchen in an old cafe for my father-in-law.   This involved removing asbestos sheeting from all four walls and the ceiling of the kitchen.  We are talking about 8 ft high walls around a 12 x 12 foot room.   I think this was about 50 years ago.  No masks no protection, not even a vent fan and the dust so thick it was hard to see.

I won’t even guess at how many asbestos siding shingles (the hard brittle stuff), roofing shingles and floor tiles I’ve removed in my lifetime. 

I’m still here!  No breathing problems and no symptoms.   Years after those days I was running 10 miles a day, enough days to total 2000 miles in one year.   If my knees were better I would still be running.

I’m just doing what my blog title says:  Oldtimer Speaks Out.   I’m only saying we don’t need to panic every time we hear one of these materials mentioned.  We don’t need to run to the EPA when a thermometer gets broken or needs to be discarded.  We don’t need to call the government to find out how to dispose of a fluorescent bulb.  We don’t need a special suit to replace an old asbestos floor tile.   Just common sense and, hopefully, an appropriate face mask.  

The biggest problem with lead is with small children who are unsupervised with uncaring parents who allow them to teeth on lead pained trim, or provide them with lead filled toys to mouth around or possibly swallow.   The biggest problem with mercury is keeping it out of the hands of children.  The biggest problem with asbestos is for those working in the industry where it is installed or removed.  These people need to be protected.  

I’ll leave you with a picture of me taken today in which I spent the day immersed in silica dust which is yet another hazardous material that I’ve been routinely exposed to throughout my lifetime.   I do not have that much gray hair!  That dust around my nose is drywall dust from sanding dried joint compound.  The glasses are so covered I cannot see through them.   My hair and mustache are completely caked.   If this column closes in the next week or so, you can quote me as having those famous last words.   “Doesn’t bother me”.

Me covered in drywall dust

Dusty Me


The can says:  “Warning!  Toxic – Harmful by inhalation – (Contains Crystalline Silica).

 (The small print says this: “A single short term exposure to joint compound and joint compound dust presents little or no hazard”.     Now which is it?  Am I a gonner?

I’m still here!  So far anyway.

10 responses to “Lead Paint Mania – Are we going Overboard?

  1. Funny stuff! You’re right we are going a bit overboard, but we should take this seriously… particularly that the CSPC is so underfunded to catch the real hazards.

  2. Pingback: Lead Free Toys » Blog Archive » Lead Paint Mania - Are we going Overboard?

  3. bill the painter

    Your still here but your brain is gone MISTER

  4. Thanks for your insightful article. I have been hearing elsewhere that some of the claims of these metals/substances weren’t as hazardous as claimed. It’s great to hear this from someone with your experience.

  5. Have to agree with Old Timer.
    been worrying about the things I did in ignorance or arrogance as a kid and as a young guy.
    Grew up in Soputh Africa, hunting, fishing, horse riding, motor biking, military service, driving all kinds of vehicles and finally flying my own home built aircraft for many happy hours – pranged it twice.
    During those years I carried my air rifle pelletrs in my mouth as all boys did when out hunting small game in the dense brush which contained ring cobras – shot plenty of those too. fishing weights were crimped onto traces between our teeth and sometimes chewed pellets or weights for fun or bredom while waiting for game to appear.
    Later did lots of building work including cutting all the corners off asbestos roofing sheets for the corner overlaps. Covered in white dust from head to toe and probably breated in a whole lot of this killer dust – many times, although used to tie a rag over my nose like a cowboy mask some times.
    67 years young now, still vigorous – long walks etc and still happilly working as a civil engineer.
    never been sick from any of these things ecept from falling off horses, bikes and rolled a truck once.
    I think the world has become a bunch of sissies – sort of wet farts we would never have associated with as kids.
    not saying to throw coution to the wind – never smoked since my late 20’s because that was obviously a killer. Dont drink and drive for same reason, but we were a happier healthier lot than all these bleeding wet nurses of today – and we could stand up for our principles and be kind to our neighbours and volunteer for the defence of our countries.
    I live in England now since SA got stuffed and I watch the antics of the health and safety brigade with utter amazement. Soon we will need a risk assessment and a method statement to wipe your own tail…….
    bloody marvelous!

    • Thanks for your comment. Those who work every day doing removal of certain materials or make, install or process them need extraordinary protective measures. Those of us who encounter the occasional broken thermometer or fishing weights, etc. don’t need to be burdened with those same measures. Schools don’t need to be shut down due to a drop of mercury spilled in a lab or a business closed due to a asbestos rag found near a soldered pipe.

  6. Thanks Oldtimer! This was exactly the article I wanted to read.

    Just bought a 1940’s house with plaster walls. We didn’t get lead paint testing because our inspector virtually guaranteed that there would be lead paint in the house, even without testing. Now it looks like the plaster and lath ceiling is hanging off the beams in one room, and we’ll probably have to take the ceiling down, spreading tons of deadly poisonous lead dust all over the house. Plus I’ve got a 15-month old baby, so of course I’m in the group that’s supposed to panic the most.

    If you read the internet or literature out there, apparently this repair will cause my child will grow up brain damaged – no alternate possibility is even suggested. If you rip down plaster walls covered with lead paint, your children are as good as vegetables. That’s it, end of story.

    My baby is going to be a coma patient unless I’m willing to nail new walls over the all of the old walls, or I completely gut my house and then send a 15-person hazmat team in to clean up after. The “lead abatement” methods suggested involve either making my house look ridiculous with walls over walls, or going bankrupt.

    If you read the EPA pamphlets, you have to wonder how anyone is alive and functioning today. We all must have inhaled so much lead paint dust during our childhood – how is it possible that we’ve learned anything?

    I loved playing with mercury when I was a kid too! It’s the coolest thing seeing that liquid metal roll around in your hand!

    Anyway, I’m glad there are some sane people out there still – everyone has really gone off the deep end I think. That said, I’m still looking forward to a renovation that will probably cost five times as much because of the lead issue. Unless by some miracle I get a negative test, but I won’t hold my breath for that!

    • While the article I wrote asks us not to go overboard, there are at least some simple steps we must do in a situation like you describe. Common sense dictates that when it comes to babies in the house, we need to take real precautions. Don’t take shortcuts on my account.

      When I did this myself, I removed the furniture from the room to be renovated (and did one room at a time) and covered the doors in the room with plastic carefully taped to the edges and covered the vents to the furnace and cooling system to keep dust from filtering into other rooms to a minimum. I put drop cloths on the floors so the dust won’t seep into the cracks in the flooring. I opened the windows and put fans blowing out. If your renovation crew does these simple things (insist on at least this much), the risk will be greatly lowered as far as dust getting into the other rooms and these steps have little cost. There will be significant dust during the removal and you should consider visiting someone else or taking a week at a motel with the baby.. Good approved masks, goggles and hair nets are needed as a minimum for anyone entering the renovation room during removal of the old stuff.. People exposed by working every day doing this kind of work will need special clothing, gloves, maybe respirators, etc. because it can build up and so don’t fault them for that.or sticking to some written spec or procedure. It takes what it takes. When I do it myself, I know it is a short term exposure and not a full time job. When dust becomes visible, I just leave and let it settle. Don’t ever let a friend or other worker do any of this work without a mask and goggles.
      . Vacuum the other rooms often. Once done vacuum the renovated rooms with a canister type vacuum cleaner and throw away the filter when done. Mop down everything before you paint and repaint all the wall and ceiling surfaces. Consider putting a new topcoat on any flooring you have, even though it had been well covered by a tarp.

      That said, what we have done several times is to locate the beams supporting the ceiling. Then with long screws fasten 1×4 boards cross ways to the beams (every two feet) and screwed the boards to the beams.. if done carefully the cross pieces will lift the loose plaster back to the beams or lath between. Then have thin drywall screwed to the 1×4 boards, tape, sand and paint (1/4 or 3/8 drywall will work in this situation).. This does not require removal of the plaster or lathe and does not create much dust other than sanding the drywall mud. I use the same sealing procedure for the doors, windows and vents and tarps on the floors. What you have done is then environmentally safe and approved almost everywhere.. You have sealed the offending material behind safe material at far less than half the cost. There are panel crews that can do that for you where there are clips installed that hold the panels up that can be done almost overnight. Call a local drywall crew for info. Have fun and good luck.

  7. Excellent entry. I just recently bought an old house and I’m amazed that many people keep telling me with fear in their eyes about lead paint, asbestos and oil tanks.

    • They can be bad, very bad. My point is that each should be evaluated on its own and not be subject to panic. . Workers that remove these substances for a living need to take extra precautions. Individuals living in asbestos clad housing or with asbestos panels inside or chalking and flaking paint should evaluate the situation carefully and where risk is great consider covering or removing the material, but there is no need to go overboard and evacuate a building because a small sample of mercury or a few paint chips are noticed. . Small kids that can chew on lead painted windowsills or have access to flaking paint or asbestos are at risk of permanent damage so action should always be taken to relieve that situation.

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