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Ask Tamara: What to do about lead painted family heirlooms…

Screen Shot 2015-01-16 at 7.05.39 PM Ask Tamara
From Mama M. in Brighton, MI
Via Facebook, March 22, 2015

“Hi! I was told to contact you about my lead question. I have some old furniture that once belonged to my great-grandmother. My mom and I both used these pieces in our childhood, and they have been covered in a few coats of paint starting in the 60’s. I would like to use these pieces now, but was wondering if even stripped of all paint, would the lead from the old lead paint have seeped into the wood? Thanks so much!”

Tamara’s answer:

The short answer is “yes”—yes, the lead from the old lead paint has likely seeped into the grain of the wood, and there’s really no way to remove it entirely. I would not consider these items safe for use by my children.

The long answer:

Screen Shot 2015-04-04 at 12.58.27 PMMost antique furniture (depending on the age/definition of “antique” of course) was not painted with modern style painting (coating an entire chair in white paint for example), this was not popular until after the 1930’s [which was in fact a trend promoted by the paint industry—to slather old “dreary” natural wood finish furniture with white (lead) paint (or red-lead) to make it brighter or more “pure”!]  In fact, depending on the age of the furniture, antiques were mostly originally coated in natural finishes like beeswax or traditional plant oils to showcase and preserve the natural look of the wood.

The lead-based paint, when it came along, was touted as “long-lasting” – which it was.

Once applied (depending on the usage of the piece of furniture), the paint could last for decades before beginning to deteriorate.  So while you (and your mom) may not have had much lead paint exposure from these furniture items in your childhood – back when the paint was newer [though, unfortunately, even when first applied, lead-based paint “chalks” – producing neurotoxic lead dust], the aged coating is likely deteriorating now (in 2015) and could cause a child (or an adult) to be lead poisoned – especially if it is an item that is part of regular, daily household use.

The primary ingredients in lead paint were 1) white lead and 2) linseed oil – sometimes with other pigments added. The linseed oil would allow a pathway for the lead to truly seep into the wood grain of the object being painted – taking a “permanent” / long-lasting hold and truly “preserving” the wood; preserving it with poison—one of the most potent neurotoxins known to man.

In my personal experience, what this has meant is that even after “dip-stripping” furniture or building components [this is when doors/ drawers / columns, etc. are taken off site to a business that dips the item in a tank of solvent and uses appropriate tools (like wire brushes) to remove the paint until the item looks like it has a natural wood / unpainted surface], when those items are later tested for lead, they very often still have toxic amounts of lead-residue on the item—even when the item has been completely stripped down to “bare wood”.  I have tested several doors that were dip-stripped, and they all tested above the 40 micrograms per square foot threshold for lead in dust [the level that is currently the federal standard for what is considered toxic to children; the new proposed standard from experts in the research community for dust wipe sample levels to be considered toxic is quite a bit lower than that; the National Center for Healthy Housing recommends this dust standard be lowered to 10 micrograms per square foot].

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Image from:

In a scene that appears in my film, I tested a lovely door [on a lovely home of a family with young children who had elevated Blood Lead Levels] that looked like it was bare wood. I don’t know for sure if it had been dip stripped or not, but it looked like it may have been; it tested positive—at a level above 700 micrograms per centimeter squared – which works out to more than 630,000 micrograms per square foot of lead [waaay above the current federal hazard level – regardless of whether or not we are looking at dust levels or total lead content!] This example illustrates that just because something looks like it is bare wood and looks like it is safe, that is no guarantee of safety.

I used to love antiques; given what I now know, personally I would not want any previously lead-painted furniture [or any older, once finished item—surprisingly, even many clear finishes contained very high amounts of lead!] in my home or anywhere in my life for that matter, since I have small children who already have tested positive for lead.

However, that said, I often offer people the following advice: IF the piece is not one with painted movable or friction surfaces (such as painted rocking chair runners that would rub on the floor, or an item with painted drawers or doors) – and thus not potentially wearing and creating lead dust – you may want to consider coating in a urethane type product (a thick clear coat, like used in bowling alley floors or for marine finishes) so you can enjoy the piece without the concern for exposure. [While far less toxic than lead, urethanes pose their own toxicity concerns of course, (and using a clear-coat on a true antique could ruin it’s value from an appraisal standpoint)—but I do understand that there is a company called Earthpaint that makes natural cashew oil-based marine-grade urethane products, so that may be a good option, although I have never used any of their products personally.]

Unfortunately the whole “shabby chic” look has become quite popular. It is a look that glorifies the distressed/peeling lead paint look that happens to furniture that was painted 50 to 100 years ago (and whose paint is finally deteriorating/failing.) Most “Shabby Chic” furniture I have seen is NOT covered in a clear coat and/or has moving parts that cause friction (and abrasion which can eventually wear off any protective clear coat) and therefore is toxic to children (and adults.)

Frankly – after all we have been through – I no longer have a category in my life of  things that could be considered a “family heirloom.” Material goods that belonged to past generations (especially ones manufactured in the last 120 years) carry so many toxicant exposure concerns, I have chosen for them to not be part of our life. The only “heirloom” we have is my mother-in-law’s silver flatware, which we have chosen to use as our “everyday” flatware (along with other stainless pieces) so she can be part of our daily life in spirit, even though I never met her. [Silver from the last 80 years (1935 to 2015) is generally nontoxic, however silver from the early 20th century (and before) can often test positive for high/ unsafe levels of lead… so be careful, choose wisely—in the case of silver a “925” mark is a good place to start – as it indicates it was manufactured after the new silver standards were put in place. Older 800 mark silver can and often does contain lead!]

Thank you for reading.


3 Responses to Ask Tamara: What to do about lead painted family heirlooms…

  1. chris April 5, 2015 at 10:45 am #

    You really should address the structure of your article. It could be read that linseed and other coatings contain lead when that is not necessarily the case. A grammar class and easing up on the fear mongering would be helpful.

    • Tamara April 5, 2015 at 1:52 pm #

      We always strive to eliminate ambiguity and clearly state the facts; please be specific about any sentences that you find ambiguous, or points that you think may be confusing, and we’ll try to clarify.

      As for your allegation of “fear mongering”, that charge is usually leveled at people raising baseless/superstitious, unsubstantiated or exaggerated concerns with the intent of – or reckless disregard for – needlessly alarming the public. Nothing could be further from our intent, nor methodology; we take great pains to thoroughly and responsibly research and present up-to-date, factual, science-based information with the sole aim of informing and empowering parents to safeguard their children from needless exposure to lead and other potent neurotoxins. Fear is counter-productive to the cultivation of the inquiring, clear-headed and clear-thinking awareness that is necessary to methodically identify and eliminate or reduce the myriad toxicants in our (and our children’s) environment. The primary cause of fear is ignorance, which is perpetuated by the culture of habituated arrogant reactionism, and consequent cavalier, cynical disregard for the legitimacy and value of efforts to reduce unnecessary health risks.

      -Leonard Rubin
      Communications Director
      Lead Safe America Foundation

  2. Catherine Brooks April 9, 2015 at 10:31 am #

    There is great controversy about whether restoring historic wood makes it lead safe. Here is another perspective and process for making old wood furniture with lead paint safe.

    One can strip all the paint down to the bare wood and then reseal the wood surface. These steps should be done outside the child-occupied building using lead-safe work practices. For more detail on these practices, see HUD’s website: See

    In another law, HUD states, “removing paint completely, particularly from crevices, requires attention to detail. Significant leaded residue may remain on surfaces unless cleanup is thorough.”

    Key words here are this last sentence. What is thorough cleanup? According to the 2010 EPA “Repair, Renovation, and Painting” law a “clearance test” for a stripped bare surface is no visible dust debris seen on a “wet wipe” rubbed across the stripped surface.

    Next, a critical step using this process is to dry the wood’s now wet-wipe-soaked surface for several days. Wet wood causes surface coatings to bubble, peel off, and expose the bare wood again. Once the wood is dry, seal it with many thick layers of urethane-type coating (or paint), as Tamara recommends.

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