I originally posted this question on Facebook – and got lots of interesting questions and answers:
While I think, frankly, an entire book could be written about the social and cultural (and economic) implications of the many possible nuances of the answer to this question – here’s my “short” answer:
Around the turn of the last century (early 1900s) the lead industry created a multi-million dollar marketing campaign around the purity of lead-white paint.
It was in the interest of the lead industry to sell as much lead as possible so they actually generated this concept that historic homes should be preserved and painted with “pure white lead” paint.
Because of their huge investment in a marketing campaign towards this end (before “marketing campaigns” were even commonplace!) painting historic homes with white lead paint became a cultural/societal/aesthetic norm.
By the time the 1980s and 1990s rolled around and historical preservation societies started to pick up steam in many New England towns these societies began to mandate that the historic homes throughout town be painted white as “they always had been” – even though, in fact, they hadn‘t always been painted white.
Many historic homes (and when we’re talking “New England” historic, we’re talking homes built in the 1600s, 1700s and 1800s!) originally had natural or stained /oiled wood shingles or natural lap siding – it was only in the most recent 125-150 years (with the significant influence of the lead industry) that white was popularized.
So, still – today – we perpetuate this cultural myth created by the lead industry for the financial gain of their companies – financial gain that was so successful (and so pervasive – as evidenced by examples ranging from all the little white houses throughout New England to the “White House” at the center of our country’s government) that it poisoned generations of families to come. Generations…
The white that is on the surface of these historic homes today (the topmost layer of paint) is often not the original lead paint—those layers having usually been painted over in the years since it was banned for residential use in the United States (in 1978). However, in some cases it still may be, as this paint was sold for it’s durability – because it lasted for decades, so in cases of paint applied in the 40s, 50s, and 60s, lead-based paint is still the top coat on some of these older homes. In others, there is a mix of original and new layers. However even where most or all of the paint on top is newer and “unleaded” – the original historic lead paint was literally just lead powder mixed with linseed oil—and this combination of ingredients actually made it possible for the lead to soak into the wood-grain of the siding… so even if an historic home has been completely stripped or scraped or otherwise had it’s lead paint “removed” and been repainted… amazingly, there is still enough lead left in the wood grain underneath to cause a child (or a family – or even a whole neighborhood) to be poisoned if that original siding is ever cut with power tools, sanded or dry scraped again in the future. [And while the EPA implemented the Renovation, Repair and Painting rule -“RRP” for short- in 2010, requiring that any professional contractor that is going to disturb the lead paint on these older homes be trained and certified in lead-safe work practices and strictly adhere to these or face substantial fines, funding and staffing for monitoring and enforcement is woefully inadequate. And of even greater concern—the rule as currently implemented does not apply to work directly performed by a home-owner—who are the folks most likely to lack the sufficient awareness, specific training and specialized equipment required to ensure that no lead dust hazards are created as a result of any work done (!)]