Introduction to Tamara (for those new to the site!)
Tamara Rubin lives in Portland, Oregon and is a child health advocate, author, documentary filmmaker, and mother of four sons. Her four sons are now 24, 18, 15, and 12. She has won multiple national awards for her Lead-poisoning prevention advocacy work (including two from U.S. government agencies). As of November 15, 2020, she has had more than 1.5 million unique individual readers visit her blog in the past 12 months (with over 3.5 million page views!) – from more than 200 countries around the world!
It is with the help, support, and participation of these readers that she conducts and reports on independent testing of consumer goods for toxicants (Lead, Mercury, Arsenic, Cadmium, and Antimony), using high-accuracy X-Ray Fluoresence analysis (read more about that here). She goes by #LeadSafeMama on Twitter, Facebook & Instagram and has over 2,500 separate posts of information (mostly consumer goods test results) on her blog at LeadSafeMama.com.
Tamara’s advocacy work has been mentioned in print in The New York Times; the New York Post; Mother Jones; Parents Magazine; Vice.com; MNN.com; TruthOut; WebMD; the Huffington Post,;USA Today; Grok Nation, and more (too many outlets to list!) – and in other media (T.V. and radio), on the Today Show; Kids in the House; Al Jazeera English; The Voice of Russia; CBS This Morning, and through news stories on CBS; ABC; NBC, and even Fox News – as well as in countless podcasts and other interviews.
So what is the safest way to reuse old house elements (windows, doors, hardware, etc.) for decor in a new house? Continue reading below the image for my answers to this and related questions.
#1.) Heat Gun?
Can I safely use a heat gun to remove Lead Paint from an old door and then use the door for decor in my home or garden?
No. Do not do this. Without training and proper professional gear, using a heat gun can be very dangerous. Using heat to remove original Lead paint from a vintage or antique item risks significant acute Lead-poisoning to the user, as well as potential poisoning to anyone in the same environment as the user. Using a heat gun on a single window can fully contaminate an entire 2,000 sf home and will acutely Lead-poison anyone who inhales the fumes.
My rule of thumb regarding this: If you can SMELL IT you are definitely breathing it in. If you are burning or heating ANYTHING toxic and it smells bad (like if you are burning wood and it smells like plastic because somehow a piece of plastic ended up in with your firewood) it is not safe to breathe those fumes. It’s always a good first principle to follow your human instincts on this one. Most humans can smell if something is toxic (especially when the smell is very distinct – like that of heated Lead paint.)
Can I safely carefully chemically and/or mechanically strip a door or window to remove the Lead paint for decor purposes?
Stripping a door will not only contaminate the environment (your work area), and your tools, but no matter how much paint you remove, unsafe levels of Lead will still be left behind in the wood grain of the door or window (or banister or board or column) or whatever building component you may be stripping! Handling the stripped item after stripping it can still easily poison the user. Improper sealing of a stripped item can further expose the household to Lead paint dust. Any abrasion or wear caused to the item and damage to the previously Lead-painted surface of the item can also cause unsafe levels of Lead dust in the home where it is used as decor.
NOTE: It just takes a (literally) microscopic amount of Lead dust to poison a human. One sugar-packet worth of Lead dust would be enough to contaminate a football field to nearly 8 times the amount that would poison a child (if that sugar packet-worth of dust was spread evenly across the entire football field.) Read more about that here.– continue reading below the image.
Can I safely sand a door or old window to remove the old Lead paint to prep the item for re-use in decor or my garden?
See above; sanding an antique door or window is incredibly dangerous – yet will normally still leave unsafe levels of Lead behind in the woodgrain of the door – after seriously poisoning the people doing the sanding, as well as significantly contaminating the space (indoor or outdoor) where the door was sanded.
One single antique Lead-painted window (if sanded) could create enough Lead dust to contaminate ten or more football fields (if that Lead dust were spread evenly across all of those football fields.) Imagine that amount of toxic Lead dust confined to a single room (or to a single basement workshop or garage workshop – or to a 2,000 sf house)! A standard American football field is 57,600 square feet.
Can I take an old door or old window off-site- and have it professionally dip-stripped to safely and thoroughly remove all of the old Lead paint to prep the item for re-use in decor or my garden?
Even if you take a door or window or other antique building component off-site and have it professionally dip stripped in a tank – unsafe levels of Lead will actually remain in the wood grain.
I had a door professionally dip-stripped off-site (afterwards it looked like “unpainted bare wood” — you couldn’t see any trace of paint remaining on the door at all) — and when we did a dust wipe sample of the surface of that door, and sent that to a lab for analysis, the door came in at more than 400 micrograms of Lead per square foot in the dust!
- The amount of Lead in dust that scientists consider potentially significantly-damaging to children is 5 micrograms (or more) of Lead per square foot of collected surface dust on a horizontal surface.
- For a long time the Federal toxicity threshold for floors had been set at 40 micrograms (or greater) of Lead per square foot of collected dust (any reading of 40 micrograms of Lead per square foot – or higher – on a floor was considered unsafe for children).
- The Federal standard has recently been revised to a standard that is more protective of children’s health (but still not fully in line with the scientific recommendation): 10 micrograms per square foot.
#5.) Safer Alternatives…
What can I do instead? What’s a safe alternative?
I really like the “distressed / vintage” look?
Buy yourself a new window, and do a full “distress” paint job on the new window if that is the look you are wanting! They also sell new already-“distressed”-painted windows (usually Lead-free) for use as decor, at stores like Cost Plus World Market, Joanne’s and Michael’s (although please beware that these items are not always 100% Lead-free, but will, in most cases, still be much safer than reusing an actual old Lead-painted building component — which can have paint with as much as 90% Lead (900,000 ppm)!
How much Lead is “too much” Lead?
How much Lead in paint is unsafe for children?
Most Lead paint on vintage / antique windows and doors (and other exterior housing components) is at least 10,000 ppm Lead or higher. Modern paint is considered unsafe for items intended for use by children (including decor in their rooms) if it is 90 ppm Lead or higher in the surface paint or coatings.
Below are some photos from my friend Carissa B’s house – she did this wall decor with new decorative windows (with a distressed look) that she bought at Cost Plus World Market. I tested them with an XRF instrument and found them to be Lead-free (please continue reading below the images).
Sorry for the extreme language, but my kids have permanent brain damage from a professional painting contractor whose crew used heat, pressure washing, and dry scraping to remove Lead paint from (the exterior of) our home.
In 2005, the Leaded fumes (from the use of heat on exterior components of our home for Lead paint removal) permeated our home and my son (who was just seven months old at the time) became acutely Lead-poisoned. This is not a joke. It is simply not worth the risk.
It’s just not worth it!
Please – I implore you – consider something else to use as a substrate or canvas for artwork you display in your home. Peeling Lead paint – or distressed wooden building components that were originally Lead-painted are simply NOT safe to use as decor, especially in a house with children or a house where children may visit.
If you need more information, watch my film!…
If you urgently want to better understand why each of the above answers is “NO.”, please watch the documentary feature-film that I directed and produced. I promise you will fully understand the concern after watching the film.
The film is 92 minutes long, and has music donated by The Who and Tom Waits (and other amazing musicians)! It also has footage from my presentation with Bernie Sanders in Flint in 2016, and from my interview with Noam Chomsky [in his old office at MIT]. The final scene in the movie is about Lead in wine and Lead in Chocolate – so I promise you don’t want to miss a moment of it! [The film has been watched more than 26,000 times on YouTube in the past 11 months since I uploaded it to YouTube in December of 2019.] Here’s the link: https://youtu.be/eRKlaC2EjL0
Thanks for reading – and thank you for sharing my posts.
Mother of Lead poisoned children