Why did paint have lead in it?

Last Updated on January 25, 2022 by Dave Farquhar

Does paint have lead in it? It’s not supposed to anymore, because it’s a serious safety issue. But there was a time when it did, and people might even pay extra for more of it. So why did paint have lead in it, and what can you do about it now?

Ingesting lead lowers IQ and causes other health issues. That’s why the United States banned lead paint for residential use in 1978. However, certain industrial paints, such as the paints used for street markings, can still contain lead even today.

Does paint have lead in it?

why did paint have lead in it
This banner from a 1922 ad for a Chicago-based paint company wasn’t even subtle about it. It casually mentioned lead the way a bread company would mention wheat.

Any paint you can walk into a retail store and buy today won’t have lead in it, and that’s been true since 1978. Even before 1978, some civic-minded companies were phasing it out. We’ve known for literally millennia that lead was bad for you. Its toxic effects were first observed around 2000 BC. That’s BC, not AD. Even the first-century Greek physician Pedanius Dioscerides observed lead’s effects on the brain, though the first textbook on the subject wasn’t printed until 1975. Why did it take that long to conduct a modern study on something observed by a doctor who lived just a generation after Christ? I don’t think we wanted to know.

At least we banned it pretty quickly once we got around to studying it in depth. Though it seems pretty ridiculous that something observed nearly 2000 years ago wasn’t studied until six years after we landed on the moon.

We have had incidents since 1978 involving the use of lead paint in toys. Not all countries banned lead paint at the same time. In one widespread case, Mattel was caught importing toys in 2007 containing lead paint and was fined.

Why paint had lead in it

Obviously, using lead in paint wasn’t among our best ideas. So why did we do it? Lead worked well as a pigment, allowing various colors that were difficult or impossible to get via other means. Before computer color matching, getting rid of lead meant giving up certain colors. Even with computer color matching, we still can’t replicate some colors we could make with lead. Lead also helped make white paint whiter, and it served as a drying agent. It was a key ingredient in those old formulations, and many venerable paint brands started out as subsidiaries of lead mining or distribution companies. Dutch Boy, for example, was a subsidiary of National Lead Co, and the advertising often contained the parent company’s name.

It’s still possible to find some cranky old-timers who say lead paint was the only kind that worked. But that’s the Luddite coming out. Today we have drying agents that work at least as well as the old ones did, and we can use heat to accelerate drying. We can also use primer to make paint stick better. I don’t care what kind of paint you use, it sticks better and longer if you use an appropriate primer underneath it.

I think it’s fair to say we gave something up in 1978. But we’ve learned a few things since 1978 too, and that’s gotten a lot of it back. And while exposure to lead is likely only one factor in crime, crime rates have decreased since we stopped using lead in paint and gasoline.

What to do about lead paint

does paint have lead in it?
Does paint have lead in it? It used to! It said so right on the can.

In home interiors, the best thing to do is keep paint in good condition and paint over it before it gets a chance to deteriorate. If the paint has deteriorated and started cracking or peeling, there are special primers that help to stick old paint back down. When doing exterior painting, I tend to use those primers whether I need to or not, now that I know about them. They’re more flexible than standard primer, so changing temperature is less likely to make them crack as they expand and contract and that makes them last longer.

Keep in mind that just because the house was built before 1978 doesn’t mean the drywall has been up that long. Houses frequently get remodeled every generation or two. And the trend of having woodgrain walls came and went between 1978 and now.

Indoors, if you’re faced with peeling paint and don’t have the budget to do a full gut rehab, you still have options. You can use the specialty primer for peeling paint to stick it back down. You can also hang quarter-inch drywall over what’s there. While the lead is still present, you have a barrier that keeps you from coming into contact with it.

And the most important thing you can do is wash your hands before you eat, and teach your kids to do the same. It protects you from lots of things, including things we can’t ban.

Does only lead paint peel?

There is a misconception that only lead paint peels. I’m not sure where that comes from. But any paint can peel. I have a side of my house that doesn’t get much shade and doesn’t have much in the way of trees to block the wind in the winter time. So it takes a beating in both of the harsh seasons. I have to paint it every five years. Of course I’m using new paint when I do.

Lead paint on toys

Unfortunately, lead paint was sometimes used on toys prior to 1978. I’m sure you’ve seen memes on social media talking about how people of a certain age grew up playing with toys with lead paint, riding in cars with no seatbelts and no padding, and they turned out fine. I’m glad they did. But I can also tell you not everyone did. The youngest brother of two kids I went to school with died in the fall of 1983. Lead was a touchy subject in that town, so no one would ever say it was due to exposure to lead. But from time to time another kid would say to wash your hands before you eat, so you don’t end up like him. No one ever had to say more than his first name.

Some toymakers voluntarily stopped using lead paint long before 1978. Although I assume any toy made before 1978 can have lead, many Tootsietoy collectors have original, unrepainted examples that do not. Others did use it. Lionel did. Marx also did. Some of the colors Marx used remain difficult to match today for that reason. Every toy company phased out lead paint at different times. While 1978 is the safe bet, it will take research to determine if any particular company did earlier.

Toys made before 1978 shouldn’t be played with anymore. And toys from the 2007 timeframe caught up in the Mattel scandal should be researched for whether they were recalled. Most modern toys have a copyright date on them. That’s not necessarily the year they were made, but a Mattel toy bearing a 2008 or later copyright date is safely outside that danger window.

Should you restore toys to get rid of lead?

why paint had lead in it
Ads like this contributed to public support for lead paint. The treatise below this image spoke of lead paint being tough, like this guy, and how lead paint contributed to jobs.

Restoring vintage toys can always be a touchy subject. Where better to find expertise on that than a vintage toy shop? So I talked to Andrew Tolch of Andy’s Toys, a popular vintage toy shop in St. Louis.

The possibility of lead paint on them certainly is one reason some people would come down on the side of restoration. Tolch said if a toy is used only for display purposes and no longer played with, there’s much less concern when it comes to lead. You’ll rarely touch it, and if you do, wash your hands afterward. When considering whether to restore a vintage toy, he recommended talking to someone knowledgeable first. Both of us have seen restored items on vintage toy forums and Youtube that lost significant value due to the restoration.

But Tolch also said there can be hazards in restoring or cleaning toys.

Safety precautions in restorations

“We do have some concerns about sanding that paint, and we should all probably take better precautions when doing even light sanding,” Tolch said. Numerous precautions are possible. Wet sanding is less likely to send particles airborne than sanding with dry paper. But to really be safe, sand outdoors, wear a mask, catch the debris on a tarp, and change your clothes afterward.

If you use a sandblaster, use a proper blasting cabinet rather than a homemade sandblaster you make with a plastic bottle. Save the debris and take it to your municipal hazardous waste disposal site.

Using chemical paint stripper is one way to keep the paint from going airborne. As tempting as it is to scrape any remaining bits, it’s safer to give it another round with the chemical. Again, save the used goop and take it to your municipal hazardous waste disposal site.

Clean the piece with mineral spirits before repainting. And, regardless of what the old-timers say, if you use self-etching primer and let the paint dry thoroughly, the resulting paint job will likely be stronger than the original was.

Lead paint in fine art

Lead paint was also used in fine art. And, realistically, since artists can mix up their own pigments to make whatever paint they want, nothing really says lead doesn’t still exist in fine art sometimes. You may have heard in art class that exposure to lead caused artists to go mad. And there could be something to that, though creativity and suboptimal mental health sometimes go together.

When painting, know what you’re using if you mix up your own pigments.

And if you have original art in your home, it is possible there’s lead in it, especially if it’s older than 1978. Like collectible toys, if you don’t touch it, it’s not a problem. If you do touch it, wash your hands afterward.

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One thought on “Why did paint have lead in it?

  • January 14, 2021 at 3:44 pm

    Unfortunately lead was also used in crayons. As recent as the 90s the US was importing crayons from China that used lead, particularly the off-brands. I know our household and church disposed of many during that time period. Supposedly some minimal trace level of metals is allowed, so don’t let the kids eat their crayons.

    Leaded gasoline worked well in the older cars, although we all inhaled the lead fumes. I can remember the strong smell associated while growing up in the 60s and 70s. With the introduction of unleaded gas it did more harm to the engines making the piston heads mushy. So, leaded gas remained common at the pumps for quite some time until the population bought the newer cars.

    Regarding lead in paints, I do recall elder folks claiming it was more durable and even thicker years ago. Advertising probably had something to do with that point of view too.

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