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While modern paint contains negligible levels of lead, if your house or apartment was built before 1965, then chances are it has lead paint on the walls.
Sanding and scraping is the usual method of removing paint, but this can become problematic if it's lead paint. Paint removal by blasting, burning, dry scraping, dry sanding, and using power tools creates the most serious dangers because the particles are small enough to be inhaled or deposited in furnishings or carpet, making complete removal extremely difficult.
"My advice is to get in contact with the local EPA, but if it's not flaky it may be safe to paint over and encapsulate it," says Steve Williams, of The Green Paint Shop in Brisbane. "[Paint company] Resene has a thick paint that bonds to the old paint."
He suggests using a licensed contractor to remove or paint over lead paint because they have the tools to deal safely with the hazard.
"They have professional vacuums with an industry filter…a HEPA [high-efficiency particulate air] filter," he says.
A volatile nature
With Australia's harsh climate and strong, bright sun, homeowners needed something to protect their weatherboard homes from the elements.
Petrochemicals derived from crude oil made great solvents for holding the pigment until it dried onto a surface, but in the process they gave paint another toxic element.
The solvents in paint evaporate easily because they are VOCs - a volatile organic compound. Some VOCs are carcinogens or nervous system toxins. They are also associated with other symptoms, such as headaches, fatigue, difficulty in breathing, and eye, skin and airway irritation.
Paints with high VOC content also present a serious environmental problem. If disposed of incorrectly, the effects range from contamination of groundwater or soil - which may result in the loss of plant and animal life - to fires or explosions.
Even today, many paints and wood finishes still contain VOCs, which are responsible for the heady fumes of a freshly painted room and can persist for years after application. Some paints can contain as much as 450 g/litre of VOCs.
Companies have since wised up and started producing low-VOC paints. Dulux has EnvirO2, an acrylic interior white base paint, and Wattyl has its i.d range. Both are low in VOCs (less than one gram per litre), which means low fumes and paint odours.
Painter Steve Williams says there are more low-VOC paints around these days. "But they are still a tiny proportion of the paint that is sold. It's still lagging behind Europe and the UK. Italy has been doing this for 20 years."