Beyond Lead-Free: How to Use Safe Painting Practices at Your Site

By Carolyn Zezima, Esq.

Thanks to the lead safety rules that govern assisted housing, young children living in HUD-assisted homes have lower blood lead levels than do comparable children in unassisted homes. And HUD continues to step up its efforts to enforce these rules and eliminate lead paint from assisted housing: The department recently awarded $6.7 million to seven universities and public health organizations to improve methods for identifying and controlling residential health risks including lead-based paint. And as part of a recent settlement agreement with the New York City Housing Authority, HUD is appointing a monitor to oversee, among other things, lead-based paint abatement at the troubled housing authority.

Despite this progress, though, eliminating lead-based paint doesn’t prevent all the health problems associated with paint. Most house paints can contain up to 10,000 chemicals, including “volatile organic compounds,” or VOCs, which can cause poor air quality andhealth problems, and can pollute ground water if not disposed of properly. VOCs help keep paint in liquid form until you use it, but once the paint is applied, the VOCs evaporate and emit toxic fumes.

Much of the dangers happen while you are painting, but VOCs continue to emit fumes at low levels for months. These toxic fumes can cause numerous short- and long-term health effects, including eye irritation, asthma, and other respiratory problems; headaches and coordination problems; nausea; vomiting; and damage to the liver, kidneys, and central nervous system. Exposure to VOCs has also been linked to cancer.

Also, unless your site has been certified as lead-free or you have permanently removed any lead hazards using a professional lead abatement contractor or during normal renovation or painting, most housing that was built before 1978 still has some painted surfaces with layers of old lead-based paint underneath. Problems arise when improper renovation, repair, and painting activities cause paint to chip, peel, or flake. Children can be poisoned by ingesting lead dust that ends up on their hands, fingers, toys, or clothing from paint on walls, floors, and windowsills.

Because exposure to even small amounts of lead can be permanently harmful to children’s health, federal, state, and local governments have put in place a number of laws and regulations you must abide by, including detailed HUD and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) rules. The most important thing is to be aware of your responsibilities before a resident complains of chipping or peeling paint or informs you of a child with high levels of lead in her blood.

We’ll help you choose safer paints and other related products, give you tips to train staff in safe painting practices, and help you comply with detailed lead paint rules when painting and performing other renovations at your site.

Use Low- or No-VOC Paint

Choose water-based latex paint over oil-based paint whenever possible and select the least toxic, lowest VOC paints available, especially for indoor paint jobs. Because of the many health effects in traditional paint, many companies offer alternative low- and no-VOC formulas along with their conventional high-VOC brands. Consider using one of these healthier alternative paints when painting at your site:

Low-VOC paints. Low-VOC paints have less fume-producing chemicals and are safer than traditional paints. Unfortunately, there is no real definition or standard for what “low” means, and self-proclaimed low-VOC paints can vary in VOC content from 49 grams per liter (g/L) to as high as 149 g/L. Choose products that have been certified by third-party rating organizations, such as Green Seal products. Green Seal, an independent nonprofit that rates products for environmental health, has set voluntary standards for paint safety, including VOC content certification, under its environmental standard “GS-11” category for alternative paint products. Green Seal also bans a number of other toxic ingredients, chemicals, preservatives and heavy metals from the paints it certifies. The standard covers the following product categories:

  • Wall and ceiling coatings, including paints and reflective wall coatings
  • Anti-corrosive coatings, including rust-preventative coatings
  • Floor paints
  • Primers (undercoats)
  • Stains and finishes
  • Sealers, including concrete and masonry sealers

Green Seal bans the use of certain dangerous ingredients, such as heavy metals like lead and cadmium, formaldehyde, ozone-depleting compounds, and hazardous air pollutants in the paints it certifies. It also defines VOC limits. For example, here’s what VOC level Green Seal says to look for when purchasing wall paint:

Product Type                                     VOC level (in g/L)

Flat Topcoat                                         50

Non-Flat Topcoat                                100

Primer or Undercoat                           100

Floor Paint                                          100

Anti-Corrosive Coating                        250

Reflective Wall Coating                         50

Reflective Roof Coating                       100

Note: Colorant also adds VOC at the point of sale. Green Seal has slightly higher VOC limits (about 50g/L higher for each type of paint) to use when buying paint that includes colorant added at the point of sale.

No-VOC paints. Paints with no VOCs have no volatile organic compounds in them. But that’s not to say they don’t contain any harmful chemicals. In fact, sometimes the paint tinting process can add some VOCs to a no-VOC paint, so be sure to check with the manufacturer or paint retailer.

Non-toxic or natural paints. These are paints made with natural ingredients instead of harsh chemicals, such as water, milk products, plant dyes, essential oils, clay, chalk, resin, or even bees’ wax.

To best minimize the health risk to residents, maintenance workers, and all site staff, look for paints that are labeled “‘non-toxic”’ and contain no extra solvents or additives, and look for 5g/L or less of VOCs. Purchase recycled latex paint if it is available in your area. Green Seal has a separate set of GS-43 standards for recycled latex paints. You can look for Green Seal certified paint products that meet these standards on their website.

Train Maintenance Staff in Healthy Painting Practices

To make sure your painting staff minimizes the potential health and environmental impact when painting your site, create a painting policy for your staff to follow that gives them clear instructions on how to paint safely. Here’s what to include in your policy:

Before painting. Give your staff the following instructions for how to prep for painting:

  • Buy safe, low- or no-VOC paints and primers, especially for indoor painting jobs. See list of approved brands or ask supplier for help in choosing low- or no-VOC paint brands.
  • Read all the directions on the label and follow them carefully.
  • Do not use exterior paint indoors.
  • Don’t buy more paint than you need. Save money and reduce waste by knowing how much to buy to cover a room and to save a small amount of leftover paint for touch-ups. Depending on wall texture, a gallon of primer covers about 200 square feet and a gallon of paint about 350 square feet.
  • When prepping, remove graffiti with a nontoxic paint stripper or graffiti remover.
  • Try to schedule large-scale painting for dry cool periods when you can leave the window open for ventilation.
  • Turn off air conditioning and cover with plastic—air conditioners don’t ventilate or filter indoor air. Mount a box fan in an open window to pull fumes out of the work area, or make sure there is adequate cross-ventilation.
  • Provide advance notice to neighbors in adjacent units of unit painting and all residents for common area painting.

During painting. Tell your staff to take the following precautions while they are painting:

  • Use the protective gear specified on the label, such as gloves, goggles, and a respirator with the proper filter. Dust masks are often not enough protection against certain vapors or particulates.
  • Keep windows wide open and run fans, as weather permits, during and for about two to three days after painting to minimize exposure to paint fumes and clean the air.
  • Take frequent fresh air breaks and leave the area if your eyes start to water or you experience breathing problems.
  • Keep pregnant women and young children away from freshly painted rooms and keep paints and hazardous supplies away from children.
  • Avoid spray painting.
  • Keep paint cans tightly closed when not in use.
  • Take extra precautions for flammable, oil-based paints (look for “Warning: Flammable” or “Caution: Combustible” on label). Don’t smoke in the area and eliminate any potential sources of open flames or spark. Keep used rags in sealed containers until you can dispose of them properly.

After painting. Give your staff the following instructions:

  • Ventilate freshly painted areas for two to three days.
  • Keep children, individuals with breathing problems, and pregnant women away from freshly painted areas for two to three days. Paint still emits vapors for several days even after paint looks dry and no longer smells.
  • Never throw liquid paint products into the trash. Recycle leftover paint or take the lids off your old paint cans to solidify the remaining paint. Liquids such as thinners don’t solidify, so add kitty litter, sand, mulch, or shredded newspapers to absorb the liquid and dry out the paint. Remove lids from cans so your trash hauler can see that the can is empty or contents are solidified.

Use Special Procedures at Sites Governed by Federal Lead-Paint Rules

Both HUD and the EPA have taken steps to require the use of practices that minimize lead hazards when you undertake renovation, repair, or painting projects at your site. In general, the requirements work together, but there are some differences.

In April 2008, the EPA issued the Renovation, Repair and Painting (RRP) rule requiring lead-safe practices. The rule said that, beginning in April 2010, contractors engaging in renovation, repair, or painting projects that disturb lead-based paint in homes, child care facilities, and schools built before 1978 (the year lead-based paint was banned nationwide for consumer use) must be certified and follow specific work practices to prevent lead contamination.

The EPA rule, issued under the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), applies to “target housing and child-occupied facilities.” Target housing is defined under TSCA as any housing constructed before 1978, except housing for the elderly or persons with disabilities, unless any child under the age of 6 “resides or is expected to reside in such housing.”

The EPA provides further definition of what it means by a “child-occupied facility.” This is a building or a portion of a building, built before 1978, that is “visited regularly by the same child, under 6 years of age, on at least two different days within any week (Sunday through Saturday period).” Duration of the visits is defined by the EPA, as well; the rule applies “provided each day’s visit lasts at least 3 hours and the combined weekly visits last at least 6 hours, and the combined annual visits last at least 60 hours.”

HUD’s Lead Safe Housing Rule (LSHR) generally applies to work performed in target housing units receiving HUD housing assistance, such as rehabilitation or acquisition assistance. Specific requirements depend on the amount of HUD assistance the project is receiving.

What counts as renovation? The EPA defines “renovation” broadly. It includes any repair or maintenance work that might disturb painted surfaces. The rule covers work you or your staff members do yourselves as well as any work by contractors, painters, carpenters, electricians, or other service providers you hire on a short-term basis. However, the rule does not cover minor repair and maintenance activities that disturb 6 square feet or less of paint per room inside, or 20 square feet or less on the exterior of a home or building, unless the project involves window replacement or demolition.

According to the EPA, if the surface to be painted is not disturbed by sanding, scraping, or other activities that may generate dust, the work is not considered renovation under the new rules. However, painting projects that involve surface preparation that disturbs existing paint, such as sanding and scraping, are considered renovation and are covered by the new rules.

The National Center for Healthy Housing (NCHH) offers the following examples of renovation and repair activities covered by the EPA rules:

  • Removal or modification of painted components such as doors
  • Repairing a painted surface or preparing it for repainting by sanding, scraping, burning, or other action that may generate paint dust
  • Removal of walls, ceilings, and other structures
  • Re-plastering
  • Re-plumbing
  • Weatherization work that disturbs painted surfaces
  • Window replacement

The rule does not apply to housing built in 1978 or later. It does not apply to zero-bedroom dwellings like dormitories or studios, to housing for the elderly or disabled as long as no children under 6 reside or are expected to reside there, or to housing that has been declared lead-free by a certified lead inspector or risk assessor.

The EPA rules have provisions that apply to day care centers, preschools, and kindergarten classrooms, whether they are located in housing complexes or in public or commercial buildings. If a portion of your site is used regularly as classroom or day care space for children under age 6, it may be considered a “child-occupied facility” under the regulations. In that case, your notification must include parents or guardians of the children who use the facility.

The EPA has established penalties of up to $32,500 per violation per day for noncompliance. The EPA has the right to audit your records up to three years after your renovation project is complete, so don’t throw anything away. State and local penalties may also apply.

Healthy homes advocates lauded the new EPA rules: “The Alliance for Healthy Homes and NCHH praise the new EPA regulation as a step in the right direction in saving children, workers, and occupants from exposure to unhealthy levels of lead during renovation, repair, and painting activities in homes and child-occupied buildings built before 1978.”

Editor’s Note: In January 2017 HUD issued a final rule regarding blood lead levels found in children exposed to lead paint hazards. In an effort to respond quickly when young children living in federally assisted housing experience elevated levels of lead in their blood, the rule lowered the department’s threshold of lead in the child’s blood to match the more protective guidance of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). HUD’s action level for lead in a young child’s blood was lowered from 20 micrograms of lead per deciliter of blood (µg/dL) to 5. When a child under age 6 resides in HUD-assisted housing and has an elevated blood level, the housing provider must test the home and other potential sources of the child’s lead exposure within 15 days, and ensure that hazards from lead-based paint, dust, or soil are controlled within 30 days. The housing provider must also report the case to HUD so the department can ensure that follow-up is completed on time.

Rules Work Together, with Some Differences

The HUD and EPA rules work together. In general, both rules say that contractors should follow three simple procedures:

  1. Contain the work area
  2. Minimize dust
  3. Clean up thoroughly

However, a major difference is that the LSHR requires clearance examinations. At the end of the job, HUD requires a clearance examination to be done by an independent party instead of the certified renovator’s cleaning verification procedure. The EPA allows cleaning verification by the renovator or clearance examination. The cleaning verification does not involve sampling and laboratory analysis of the dust.

HUD requires that the site’s “designated party” (owner or management agent) distribute notices to occupants within 15 days after lead hazard evaluation and control activities in their unit, and in common areas if applicable. The EPA has no requirement to notify residents who are not the owners after the renovation is complete.

HUD does not certify renovators or firms, but requires that all workers and supervisors must complete a HUD-approved curriculum in lead safe work practices. Noncertified renovation workers need only on-the job training as long as a certified renovator who is trained in lead-based paint abatement supervises them.

The EPA does certify renovation firms and requires that the training providers who do certification be accredited. Only the certified renovator is required to have classroom training. Workers must receive on-the-job training from the certified renovator. In February 2017, the EPA published a rule modifying the requirement for hands-on refresher training for renovators so that they can take the refresher course online and without the need to travel to a training facility for the hands-on portion.

Here are three major rules you need to follow.

Rule #1: Make Sure Workers Are Trained and EPA-Certified

To protect residents from lead-based paint hazards, the EPA is now requiring contractors, building maintenance staff, and other site workers to receive training and certification and to follow certain protective lead-safe work practices in projects that disturb lead-based paint in housing built before 1978. Beginning in April 2010, workers must be certified in lead-safe work practices by the EPA. They must follow those practices in their work in order to keep hazardous dust from spreading. Under the new requirements, contractors must set up work areas that will not expose residents. They must minimize dust, clean up thoroughly, and dispose of debris carefully.

To get certification, individuals must finish an eight-hour training course offered by an EPA-accredited training provider. Recertification is required every five years. Training courses are already available. If a company or firm gets certification, it must ensure that renovations are performed or supervised by certified staff.

The policy is intended to protect children under age 6 from exposure to lead, which has been shown to be seriously harmful to them. The EPA says that the most common sources of exposure are deteriorating lead-based paint, lead-contaminated dust, and lead-contaminated residential soil. Lead dust can form when lead-based paint is dry scraped, dry sanded, or heated. Removing or treating lead-based paint improperly can increase the dangers of exposure, so the EPA is mandating lead-safe work practices in major renovation projects.

Editor's Note: The EPA rules supplement the training, certification, and lead hazard requirements of HUD’s Lead Safe Housing Rule and all state and local requirements. The HUD Lead Safe Housing Rule makes you responsible for ongoing lead-based paint maintenance and reevaluation as part of your regular building operations, unless you have a certification that all lead-based paint has been removed. To identify lead hazards at your site, you need a professional risk assessment from a properly licensed inspector. To control or to permanently remove identified lead hazards, you must hire a certified lead abatement contractor who is familiar with HUD’s complex requirements. Under HUD rules, at the completion of a lead-control project at your site, you must get a clearance examination that shows the lead hazard has been abated. To locate a certified firm in your area, go to or call 1-800-424-LEAD [5323]. HUD requirements for subsidized housing are found at 24 CFR 35.

Rule #2: Distribute Pamphlet, Keep Records

Effective now, contractors, property managers, and others who perform nonemergency renovations in residential houses and units built before 1978 are required to distribute an EPA lead pamphlet before starting renovation work.

You must get confirmation that the resident received the lead pamphlet up to 60 days before work begins, or you must get a certificate of mailing from the U.S. Postal Service at least seven days before renovation begins. You may self-certify delivery of the lead hazard information pamphlet to a resident if the resident is unavailable or unwilling to sign a confirmation of receipt of the lead pamphlet. You must retain records for three years.

You can use the following form, based on one developed by the EPA, to confirm that a resident received the pamphlet “The Lead Safe Certified Guide to Renovate Right,” before renovation work in his unit begins, as required by the EPA. Keep this confirmation in your records for at least three years. (Note that the required pamphlet is also titled “Renovate Right: Important Lead Hazard Information for Families, Child Care Facilities and Schools” [Publication EPA-740-F-08-002]. Note that this is not the same as the pamphlet that you must distribute before signing leases. For copies, in Spanish or English, call the National Lead Information Center (NLIC) at 1-800-424-LEAD, visit, or call the Government Printing Office order desk at (202) 512-1800.)

Rule #3: Notify Residents of Common Area Projects in Advance

For nonemergency work in common areas of multifamily housing sites, which include both the interior and exterior of the buildings, you must distribute renovation notices to residents or post informational signs that describe the nature, locations, and dates of the renovation or repair job. Signs must be accompanied by the lead renovation pamphlet or by information on how to get a free copy. You must maintain written documentation describing your notification procedures. You must update the renovation notice and signs if changes occur in the location, timing, or scope of the renovation project. Signs should be in the language of the occupants.

You can use the following model notice, based on one created by the EPA, to inform residents of upcoming renovations in the common areas of your site.

Possible Compliance Issues

Owners should take care to ensure compliance with the HUD/EPA Lead Disclosure Rule (LDR), the HUD LSHR, and the EPA RRP Rule. Some examples of possible compliance issues include:

Disclosure. Under the LDR, owners are required to provide their residents with a brochure detailing the effects of lead poisoning and disclose all known lead hazards at the site. The brochure was updated in 2017. Brochures created before the update should be destroyed. A copy of the latest version of the pamphlet, the EPA’s “Protect Your Family from Lead in Your Home” as well as required specific disclosure language and documentation that supersedes Handbook 7487.1 is available at

Keeping records. Owners participating in the Housing Choice Voucher program must maintain lead paint disclosure records and disclose all known information about lead paint in units and common areas where testing and lead hazard control work has been performed. Owners must also maintain all records regarding lead paint and make them available to residents as part of the disclosure process, as well as keeping records of the disclosure process for three years.

Complying with HQS requirements. If a unit is found to be out of compliance with Housing Quality Standards (HQS) because of a lead paint inspection prior to occupancy by a child under 6 or due to a risk assessment of the unit because a child living in the unit was reported to have an environmental blood lead level, the unit is not in compliance with HQS until the lead hazard is cleared. This is true whether a child will be living in the unit or not.

Familial discrimination. Owners cannot exclude families with young children from participating in housing programs because of the lead-based paint requirements or require parents to provide information about child blood lead levels before offering housing. Policies of this type are a violation of the Fair Housing Act and medical privacy standards.

Multiple RRP violations and record inspections. Under the RRP, the EPA can collect up to $37,500 per violation. EPA enforcement cases under its lead-based paint regulations may include multiple violations, especially at multifamily sites where violations are assessed on a per-unit basis. If the EPA requests a record inspection for the RRP Rule, contact your counsel (in-house or outside counsel) regarding the request. HUD's Office of Lead Hazard Control and Healthy Homes will provide technical support for RRP inquiries. EPA inspections are voluntary; however, the EPA can issue a subpoena to compel record disclosure.

Our Model Checklist: Complying with the RRP Rule & the Lead Safe Housing Rule can assist in compliance and includes the types of documentation that an owner may be asked to produce during an EPA inspection. 

About the Author

Carolyn E. Zezima, Esq. is the president of NYC Foodscape ( and a consultant with a track record of grass-rooting and managing organizations in the nonprofit sector. She has worked with food and farming enterprises and food policy organizations in Chicago and New York to promote healthy sustainable food systems, urban agriculture, and regional farming, including founding The Talking Farm, “The Farm with Something to Say,” an urban farming and educational enterprise in Evanston, Ill. She can be reached at or (847) 507-1785.