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Why Was Lead Paint Ever Popular?

Posted on July 25, 2014

Evolving scientific understanding didn’t override the benefits of lead in paint until the 1940’s.

Lead PaintOfficials have identified high blood lead levels as one of the most significant public health issues affecting children in America. Exposure to lead especially via the ingestion of lead dust from lead-based paint can cause children to experience significant ill effects including developmental problems, anemia, and damage to the liver, kidneys, brain, and nervous system. Knowing what we know about the dangers of lead poisoning now, it is hard to understand why lead-based paint was ever popular. However, the fact of the matter is that authorities simply did not know that lead paint was so dangerous prior to the 1940’s. In fact, they actually thought lead paint was good for Americans.

Benefits of Lead Paint

White lead was considered the best possible pigment to use in paint because it helped to make the paint more durable. In the 1910’s and 1920’s, zinc oxide was pretty much the only alternative to white lead. Zinc oxide allowed the paint to absorb 12 to 15 times more water than lead, so zinc paints weathered much more rapidly than lead paint, especially if they were washed frequently. Since Americans were encouraged to wash their walls regularly to help prevent the spread of infection diseases like the Spanish Influenza (which killed 100 million people in 1918), lead paint was seen as very desirable.

Official Endorsement of Lead Paint

Americans were encouraged to use lead paint by two groups that they trusted: the government and master house painters. Numerous state and federal agencies endorsed lead paint as the “best choice for house owners,” and many public housing projects built by the federal government featured lead paint. It is also important to note that home painting was not a DIY activity during this era. Instead, people considered it a special skill and left the selection and application of paint to professionals. These master painters preferred lead paint because it lasted so much longer than other options.

First Signs of a Problem

By the 1930’s, Americans were beginning to note incidences of childhood lead poisoning. However, the official response was to recommend that parents stop using lead-based paint on baby carriages, cribs, and toys. By the late 1940’s, the consensus among doctors and scientists seemed to be that this measure was sufficient and had been successful in reducing lead poisoning in babies. However, in 1948 public health investigations in Baltimore revealed that deteriorating lead paint inside homes was also harmful to children. Lead paint was banned inside homes in Baltimore in 1951, but the federal government did not take steps to ban lead paint until the 1970’s.

Dealing with Lead Paint Today

Today we are left dealing with a legacy of lead paint use dating back decades. If you have an older home, it may contain multiple layers of lead paint. Dust from this paint may contaminate interior surfaces and/or the soil around the home. If you suspect you have lead contamination on your property, the best course of action is to contact a contractor such as H2 Environmental who is experienced in safe and effective lead paint remediation activities.

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