Lead paint and your health
Lead paint is toxic and can be harmful to your health, particularly for pregnant women, children and pets.
You may be at risk of lead paint exposure when renovating, restoring or re-painting, especially if your home was built before the mid-1970s.
When lead paint deteriorates, is damaged or disturbed, you could be at risk of breathing in paint fumes or swallowing paint flakes and dust – which can be found in places like wall cavities or under the carpet.
Follow the six step guide (PDF 856KB) when renovating, restoring or repainting, or you could be putting your health and the health of your family at risk.
Lead paint is toxic and can be harmful to people of all ages, but the risk of health effects is highest for unborn babies, infants and children.
Lead-based paint becomes a problem when it deteriorates or is damaged or disturbed, when it can be a significant health hazard. Lead from paint can enter the body by breathing in fumes and small particles or by swallowing paint flakes or dust.
It is important to remember there is no 'safe' level of lead exposure. All exposure to lead should be reduced or prevented to keep blood lead levels as low as possible.
See the lead page for more information on the health effects of lead.
Homes built before mid-1970s and particularly before 1940 are most at risk of containing lead-based paint.
But even newer houses, sheds and fences may have interior or exterior surfaces or structures that were painted with old lead-based paint. Renovations like removing walls, replacing ceilings, flooring and carpets can mobilise dust that may contain lead-paint dust or flakes from previous renovations.
It is not possible to know if paint has lead in it by its appearance alone.
You should assume all houses contain lead-based paints if they were built:
- prior to the mid-1970s
- up to the 1940’s it is especially hazardous because there was so much lead used in paints at that time
- after the mid-1970s can still be a risk if old house paint, industrial or marine paint has been used.
Lead may be present in both topcoats and undercoats and particularly on surfaces like:
- exterior walls, doors and windows
- rooves, gutters, pipes and fittings
- sheds and garden furniture
- interior walls, skirting boards and fittings
- ceiling spaces, wall cavities, under floors, in carpets due and in the soil due to lead dust and paint flakes from previous renovations.
In the past, lead-based paint has also been used on:
- cars and boats
- old furniture, including baby cots and garden chairs and benches
- children’s toys, particularly old inherited toys, collectible lead soldiers or those bought from markets, garage sales or overseas
- artist or hobby paints
Follow the six step guide (PDF 856KB) if any of these items are restored, renovated or used by young children.
Before you start renovating, read the six step guide to painting your home (PDF 856KB) and watch the video below for a basic overview and description of the methods for removing lead paint safely.
Take precautions to protect yourself and your family from lead exposure if repainting or renovating.
- Testing it is important to find out if lead-based paint is present in your home.
- Consider using a professional painter who is trained in lead-paint management and removal, particularly for large areas.
- Consider covering lead-based paint with lead-free paint instead of removing it, but only if it is in good condition (for example, not flaking or chalking). This is only a temporary solution as lead-based paint can be exposed if the covering paint is chipped.
- Relocate children and pregnant women out of the house for the duration of the renovation and clean-up. Do not carry out renovations that may expose you to lead-based paint or other lead fixtures if you are pregnant.
- Consider using a professional painter who is trained. Find an experienced contractor:
- Seal off the work area to stop contamination moving to other areas of the house.
- Remove all furnishings, curtains, rugs and other household items. Carpets and larger furniture items should be covered with plastic.
- Cover the floor or ground with plastic sheeting to catch and contain debris.
Protect yourself and others
- Wear appropriate personal protective equipment and wash clothing separately from other items after use.
- Do not use renovation methods that create dust or fumes such as grinding, blasting, using torches and heat-guns, scraping and dry sanding. Wet scraping, wet sanding and chemical stripping help reduce the amount of airborne dust.
- Prevent ingestion of paint particles by not eating, drinking or smoking in the work area.
- Keep pets out of the renovation area for their own safety and to prevent transfer of dust and debris throughout the house
- Prevent soil and garden contamination when working on the outside of your home or disposing of renovation waste.
- Inform neighbours of your activities so they can take appropriate action.
- Clean using a HEPA filter equipped vacuum and wet mopping.
- Dispose of contaminated waste material safely. Prevent contamination of your garden and drains. Contact your local council for local requirements for waste disposal.
- Test the work area after clean-up to make sure it has been done correctly.
Before 1970, paint used in many Australian houses contained high levels of lead, because lead is an effective colour pigment and it makes paint tough and durable. In 1969, the Australian Uniform Paint Standard was amended to reduce the amount of lead in domestic paint from the previously recommended level of 50% to 1%. The maximum content was further reduced to 0.25% in 1992 and to the current level of 0.1% in 1997.
Amendments to the Controlled Substances (Poisons) Regulations 2011 came into operation on 1 April 2017. These amendments include the introduction of penalties that bring into effect national controls over the content of paints in South Australia. The national Uniform Paint Standard restricts the proportions of the most toxic poisons in paint such as lead and cadmium.
The law limits the proportion of lead permissible in paint sold in South Australia to 0.1%. The health department can now take regulatory action and potentially prosecution if breaches are made by paint and tinter manufacturers, wholesalers or retailers.
If you are worried that you or your family have been exposed to lead it is important to see your doctor and ask to have a blood lead test.
If you are renting a privately-owned house and you are concerned about the condition or type of paint in your home you should contact your property owner or agent.
Paint can be tested using one of the following methods:
Colour-change test kits
Colour-change test kits are a simple way to identify if lead paint is present in your home. They are available from most hardware, paint or safety equipment supply stores.
These kits are relatively cheap and quick to use but are limited in their accuracy.
It is important to test all layers of paint, not just the top coat, which may require a cut be made through all layers of paint.
Laboratory testing is the most reliable method of testing but it can be expensive. Samples need to be scraped off and each layer of paint may need to be tested.
You can collect and send off your own samples by following the laboratory’s instructions. Use a laboratory accredited by the National Association of Testing Authorities to test for lead.
Portable x-ray fluorescence device
Portable x-ray fluorescence device does not damage the paint surface and gives an instant indication of the presence and level of lead. This service is not readily available to the public.
Further information and resources
For further information on lead and lead-based paint contact SA Health's Scientific Services:
- Email: HealthControlledSubstances@sa.gov.au
- Phone: (08) 8226 7100
- Lead Alert: The six step guide to painting your home (PDF 856KB)
- Fact sheet – Lead-based paint (PDF 1031KB)
- Fact Sheet – Lead and your health (PDF 940KB)
- Fact sheet – Reducing your lead exposure (PDF 933KB)
- Lead in house paint (Australia Government)
- Lead risk work (SafeWork SA)
- Laboratory testing (NATA Australia)