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Lead paint inside kitchen cabinets

March 2, 2011

My kitchen cabinets don't have a back - they are just attached to the wall, which you can see when you open a cabinet. The wall is painted, and that paint has start to come off in dust form. I'll open a cabinet or drawer up, and there will be a little pile of dust sitting there. I thought at first it was wood, as it is the color of wood and the doors and drawers stick a lot when you open and close them. But no - it's paint, and definitely old enough to be lead paint. Needless to say, I'm rather concerned.

I am guessing I'm not the first person on this forum to have this problem, and I'd love it if I could hear what other people have done to resolve this. I am not sure if this is something I can take care of myself (very carefully, following the standards I found listed on the NYS gov't website) or if I would be better off hiring someone to do it for me. The original plan was to encapsulate it with latex primer and then paint it, but since it is dusting off I don't know if that would be a viable option.

Comments (29)

  • civ_IV_fan

    is the paint chipped or peeling? if not, you can just put a coat of oil-based primer meant to be covered with latex-paint. lead paint is going to be oil-based and you need the right kind of primer. don't get a latex primer.

    if the paint is severely chipping and peeling (paint doesn't "dust" without some kind of friction), then you have some issues, not just lead but also why is paint chipping away from my interior walls?

    another option for the paranoid would be to remove the cabinets and install a thin hardboard on the backside, then reinstall them.

  • badgergrrl

    Get a lead paint home test kit. (paint stores or hardware stores have them.)
    They're reasonably priced and easy to use.

    No sense in getting worked up or hiring a lead removal company if it's not actually lead paint.

  • karinl

    Welcome to the land of the paranoid! You're among friends here. But I agree with two things: first, find out if it's leaded, and second, why is it "dusting?" Paint usually chips or peels - is it the underlying plaster that is "dusting?" And if so, why? Are there insects involved, perhaps?

    Myself, I think I'd have those cabinets off the wall for starters, and maybe I'd rethink the whole kitchn. The kitchen is one thing we did new from the studs in, and I am happier that way.


  • jlc102482

    Thanks for the advice! I will get a home lead test kit today.

    The paint isn't flaked or chipped anywhere - it's just dusty and the wall feels chalky to the touch. It could very well be the plaster walls that are dusting, and the paint is coming off with it. The walls in this part of the house are from 1949 and aren't in great shape. There aren't any visible wall cracks in the kitchen, but there are many in the butler's pantry, which shares a wall with the kitchen. I'm not sure what the friction that is causing the dusting would be. I find the dust all over the cabinet shelf, not just towards the back next to the wall. Weird. I guess I'll have to take a closer look at the walls to see what the deal is.

  • sombreuil_mongrel

    Paint doesn't turn to dust inside a cabinet by itself.
    It's either the plaster effluorescence from water damage, or it's wood dust; as you stated the drawers rub wood on wood.
    If there's wood dust it's from abrasion or insect work.

  • ks_toolgirl

    Hi, jlc - I just want to add 2 things to the excellent advice above...

    1: test the wall, then use a new "swab" to test the dust in a drawer. It sounds like it might be from friction in the wood & not the paint from the wall. I'm "all about" panicking, lol, but also about ruling out a catastrophe if I can! :-)

    2: (sorry, this will not be helpful!). I suggest buying more than 1 brand of test kit & try each in same spots. Do you have a place where you are certain the paint is lead? (Helps for a comparison).

    I wish I could remember the brand I bought, years ago. EVERY painted surface I dabbed a swab with showed varying degrees of red/pink - which the instructions said meant lead was definately present, red meant a lot, pink meant less lead but lead nontheless. I started to get skeptical! I tried a fresh swab on a spot where I KNEW lead paint wouldn't be present... (Brand new piece of unfinished wood, that I'd just painted outside, new paint, new brush, hadn't been brought inside yet!)... Within seconds the swab & spot on painted wood turned (pale) pink! That's why I suggest more than one brand - I'm sure this was the cheapest, ("that's how I roll", lol). I ended up putting a fresh coat on painted woodwork, JIC, (pregnant @ time & preparing in true paranoid fashion), and haven't tested since.

    Hope to hear how the testing goes - I'm super curious about how the dust shows! Best of luck! :-)

  • inox

    A recent issue of Fine Homebuilding magazine reported that the EPA found that all but two of the lead paint test kits report both false positives and false negatives. The reliable kits are the LeadCheck kit by Hybrivet Systems of Natick, MA, and one sold only by the State of Massachusetts to licensed contractors in MA.

    Hybrivet Systems was acquired by 3M in February.

    Here is a link that might be useful: Lead Check test kits

  • Moccasin

    I just learned about the paint/varnish/urethane remover, SOY-GEL, and was wondering if anyone had used it to remove lead paint?

    Would it help take the paint off if the plaster itself was what had the problem powdering?

    I read the reviews for this product on Amazon, which sells it, and nearly all were rave reviews because it is nontoxic and effective.

  • ideagirl2

    Why is it that you aren't supposed to use latex primer over lead paint? What's the downside?

  • civ_IV_fan

    idea girl -

    the reason you shouldn't use latex primer over lead paint isn't because of the lead in the paint per se, but because lead paint is oil-based whereas latex paint is water based. you can only paint over oil with oil or you'll have moderate to severe adhesion problems.

    fortunately for everyone, they make a primer specifically for painting over oil-based paint when the next layer(s) will be latex.

  • brickeyee

    "you can only paint over oil with oil or you'll have moderate to severe adhesion problems. "

    All you need is the correct primer.

    Latex is more flexible than alkyd (the type that can contain lead) and will stick just fine if the surface is cleaned and primed correctly.

    The only thing you DO NOT want to do is sand to improve adhesion.

    Using TSP to dull the old surface and clean it completely works very well, even the liquids sold to dull old paint work, but are expensive for large areas).

    The real problem is putting alkyd paint (dries hard) over latex paint (remains flexible).

    Flexibly over hard is fine, hard over flexible will fail.

  • allison1888

    One quick fix, until you can figure out what is causing the plaster/paint to come off, is to put up a piece of cardboard or drywall to create a back wall for the cabinet. Don't install it if you are planning to fix the wall behind it, but prop it into place and at least stop some of the stuff from coming in. Is it happening in many cabinets or just one? I've done a lot of lead paint removal with a gel type of product (Multi-strip), but it's been on woodwork, not where the plaster is also falling off.

    Here's a link, but I don't think you need a professional for this one.

    Here is a link that might be useful: lead paint

  • brickeyee

    Unless the house is very old the lead in the paint is lead acetate( AKA 'sugar of lead').

    It was used as a drier and gloss improver.

    lat paint rarely contains lead pigment (lead oxide) unless it is VERY old.

    If the paint is NOT gloss it is pretty unlikely to have lead in it.

    If it does test positive for lead, stripping it is NOT the way to go.
    Cover it up with paint or panels of wood.

  • inox


    I would like to know why you recommend NOT stripping lead paint.

    I have not had a chance to compare line-by-line the old EPA pamphlet about lead paint removal with the new one, but I got the impression that the government was thinking of lead paint more like asbestos-if it is intact, paint over the lead paint, the equivalent of leaving intact asbestos insulation alone.

  • brickeyee

    "I would like to know why you recommend NOT stripping lead paint. "

    Stripping in place results in a contamination nightmare.

    All the waste you create contains soluble lead and requires special disposal in most places.

    Wood work can be removed for stripping normally, but stripping a wall is going to require doing the work in place.

    A wall inside a cabinet is NOT going to see a lot of wear and tear.

    Just paint it.

  • inox


    Thank you. You have made some important distinctions that I will keep in mind when I confront my own lead paint.

  • karinl

    No one mentioned Calcimine here - is there a chance this could be the problem?


    Here is a link that might be useful: Calcimine description and mitigation

  • rosemaryt

    We've all been around lead paint for YEARS. The threat that lead paint presents to human health is really small. Just be wise. No need to cordon off the house and give away the children and buy high-dollar four-legged tyvek suits for the quadrupeds.

    BTW, here's an advance copy of a new ad campaign by the EPA.

  • antiquesilver

    Yeah, it would be a real shame for any child to grow up in that dump! Only use for old shacks like that is as a crack house but then the junkies might get lead poison.

    EPA, ghrrrrrrrrrrrrrr

  • badgergrrl

    Lead poses little health concern?
    I'm sure this child would disagree....

    Here is a link that might be useful: Lead Chelation

  • brickeyee

    Notice they never actually discuss HOW she got the high lead levels, just give some common reasons.

    The EPA tightened up the water quality standards and the Washington Aqueduct complied (they were even proud to be in advance of the 'drop dead' date for the 'higher standard').

    The water became aggressive enough to remove the coating that had formed keeping the water out of contact with lead supply lines, and lead level in the water skyrocketed in numerous houses (they still had lead supply lines).

    The EPA water quality branch had failed to discuss possible impacts with the EPA corrosion experts.

    The Aqueduct now adds orthophosphate to the 'purer' water to limit leaching of lead from the supply lines.

    There has been a slide in childhood lead levels sine the removal of lead tetra ethyl from gasoline.

  • badgergrrl

    I concur on the gasoline - I still remember that taste you'd get in your mouth from breathing in the exhaust - Sweet Tarts yum!

    I also think education has been helpful as well, particularly in urban areas. I was merely trying to offer a counterpoint to the "lead isn't so bad" school of thought.

    It is too bad we have to create such grandiose and sweeping policies sometimes just because people are, well, dumb. A side effect of the lead poisoning, no doubt. ;)

  • columbusguy1

    Want your kids to be completely safe? Stuff them in a plastic bubble with filtered air and have them isolated from all human touches.

    When we were growing up, my god, there would never be another generation--we climbed trees, drank from the water hose, went to schools with oiled wood floors, drank from other kids milk, and swapped food with them because theirs looked better! Yum, white bread with butter as part of lunch, and eating a carrot or tomato right from the garden!

    We played with dangerous games with small, and sometimes sharp parts--gods, I even had an old bb gun! I very quickly took the training wheels off my Schwinn, and hugged and kissed my german shepherd and cats!
    It's a wonder our parents had lived long enough to have kids, let alone their parents!

    Maybe times have changed, but I can't think of a single kid, or hearing of one who ate paint off the woodwork--we were raised by parents who watched over us in our early years, not plopped us in front of the tv while they indulged their own wishes. Who has ever heard a parent say 'no' to a child in public these days? They'd be reported as a bad parent.

    People, when you have a kid, it is now your prime concern to teach them what to, and what NOT to do--let's not have another generation of spoiled brats please.

  • rosemaryt

    If lead paint was 10% as awful as the EPA proclaims, we baby boomers would be sitting in a corner somewhere babbling nonsensically to ourselves and drooling out the right side of our mouth.

    It's not that grave a threat. And I have *had* lead poisoning, albeit a minor case, about 30 years ago. And it was my own stupidity that brought it on. In 1980, I restored an old 1913 duplex and spent DAYS sanding several miles of millwork and trim that hadn't been painted since the 1950s. The air was so think with dust you couldn't see across the room.

    Admittedly, that was stupid. The most memorable part of the event was the next few days I could NOT get rid of this weird taste in my mouth. But I was in my late 20s, and otherwise healthy and I took a break from the work, and the next time I sanded old baseboards, I wore a face mask.

    Problem solved.

    Back to the "hazards" of lead paint.

    Let me tell you about my friend, "Rick," who had an early 1900s apartment building. It was the cheapest rent in town and the house was not in bad shape, but it had never been "modernized."

    One day, some low-rent people moved into his low-rent place and the little kid was found to have lead poisoning.

    Inspectors found lead paint on the woodwork, including window sills.

    Rick moved the low-rent people into another property (with no lead paint), and absorbed the expenses of putting people in far nicer place (temporarily) while he rehabbed their place. Rick then spent thousands in abatement. Fine, old, thick, tall moldings were thrown into the dumpster and sent to the landfill. Old wavy-glass windows were tossed and replaced with expensive new double-glazed, vinyl windows. The old house was stripped of all its character and charm.

    And Rick was out a whole lot of money.

    He moved the low-rent people back into his not-so-low-rent property (same rent, so as to not run afoul of the scary bureaucrats), and at specified intervals, the child's blood was checked again and again.

    After a few weeks, the child's lead levels were still elevated. More inspectors came back to the rental house and double-checked Rick's work again! How could this be? It must be the crappy old house!!

    AFter a few such visits, the real culprit was found. The family was using an old painted crib. Said child was nibbling on the crib. The crib had been painted many years prior with lead-based paint.

    Woopsie! said the EPA.

    Meanwhile, Rick had spent a small fortune, and another old house had been decimated for no reason whatsoever. And - after those people moved out - he raised the rent on his newly renovated rental house. Oopsie, there goes another low-income rental.

    Now, how many times has this happened across our great country?

    Probably millions.

    BTW, I'm a mother of three girls. I'm all about "saving children," and I think our energies and dollars and time should be spent on doing some *constructive* to save children, rather than investing millions of dollars on politically correct causes that - really and truly - are one of the smallest potential threats that our children face today.


  • DavidR

    Rose, I don't know for sure what sources of lead contamination are the ones that might harm kids. That's why I have to be a bit cautious.

    I live in an old house. It probably has some lead paint. and I'm pretty sure that the oldest parts of the furnace ductwork are wrapped with asbestos tape.

    It's too bad that my house (and maybe yours) might contain lead and asbestos. We have to realize though that the people who built and maintained our old houses lo those many years ago were building with materials then thought to be the best and safest.

    Asbestos, after all, was decent insulation and didn't burn. No one then knew what it could do to people's lungs. Now we know what this stuff can do.

    As long as I live in my house, I'm probably OK. I know better than to gnaw on the windowsills and play with the furnace ducts. I don't have any (human) kids who are likely to do these things, though I do have pets.

    But when I prepare to sell the house, I'll have to give it some thought.

    I also own rental properties. Those I have to consider now.

    In either case, I can't afford to let hazards exist where others might be exposed to them, either legally or morally.

    The good news (for me) is that most of my rental units were built after lead paint and asbestos insulation went out of use.

    If I found lead or asbestos in my oldest (1959) rental, I'd pretty much have to carry out abatement, for my own protection and my tenants', just as your friend did.

    Regrettably, that's the way it is. That house is a very ordinary tract home and I wouldn't hesitate to do something similar to what your friend did. There isn't much character there to preserve.

    However, I'd like to think that if I had a nice old house as a rental, I'd do the abatement in a way that would preserve the house's character. But I'll admit, it would depend on what I could afford.

    PS - please don't use the phrase "politically correct" to refer to these essential procedures.

    First of all, that term is often used disparagingly, but IMO "political correctness" in most cases isn't really something negative. It really means being polite to other people. I don't see that as a bad thing, do you?

    Second, this issue has nothing to do with politics. It's about our legal and moral responsibilities.

  • brickeyee

    "Second, this issue has nothing to do with politics. It's about our legal and moral responsibilities. "

    The EPA has politicized lead paint and asbestos far beyond their actual risk.

    How come the previous generations that raised children in houses covered in lead containing paint had few (if any) problems?

    After forcing school systems to spend billions of dollars removing asbestos from buildings even the EPA admitted it would have been far better to simply encapsulate in place.

  • DavidR

    How come the previous generations that raised children in houses covered in lead containing paint had few (if any) problems?

    My guess is that those were well maintained homes. From what I've read about it, lead poisoning today seems to be most common among lower income families. They often live in poorly maintained homes. The old lead paint chips off the woodwork, and is ingested by toddlers and infants who crawl the floors.

    This problem could be solved by better inspection of housing, especially rentals, but cities don't have budgets for that these days. Most property owners would raise cain about it, too, and they tend to be politically well connected. (There's that word again.)

  • rosemaryt

    Prior post said, "My guess is that those were well maintained homes."


    Nice try and thanks for playing. We have some lovely parting gifts for you.

    Anyone who is a baby boomer (50 or more) grew up in a pre-1960 (lead-filled) house! And back in the day - if you think back to your childhood, typical housing stock 40 years ago was actually in NOT AS GOOD REPAIR as today's housing stock.

    Housing codes are tighter, people are wealthier, there's more interest in home maintenance, more resources readily available (Lowes, etc), and on and on.

    We baby boomers grew up in lead-filled old houses and it was NOT a problem for us. In fact, OUR old houses did not have layers and layers of latex paint on them, like today's homes do. If anything, it should have been a bigger problem - but it was not.

    I stand by my original statement. This has become politicized and the true risk of lead paint is grossly overstated.

    Rosemary Thornton

  • sombreuil_mongrel

    Brick, the answer to you question is fairly simple; the previous generations you speak of were when the lead paint (which sticks tenaciously, to a point) was still much fresher well-affixed to the surfaces. Passage of time and ensuing degradation have taken place and the paint becomes chippy, and then it is part of the interior environment. When it was new or nearly so, it was a minimal hazard. Once it starts falling off as random chips, it becomes an ongoing unpredictable problem.

    We lead-tested a couple of rooms we were working on last week, and as you had predicted, the wall paint was all negative, and only the primer and first coats on the woodwork was positive. The work dated (probably) to an 1880's remodeling.

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