Should you be worried about lead in automotive paint?

The older the vehicle, the higher the chance of lead concentration in the paint.

Published: July 18, 2020, 8:25 PM
Updated: November 25, 2021, 10:04 AM

Lead is Hazardous - It's particularly dangerous for children, whose brains are still developing.

You probably already know that lead is hazardous to your health and that it is particularly dangerous for children, whose brains are still developing.

You may also know that, while lead used to be a significant component of gasoline, unleaded gasoline has been the norm since the mid-1970s. And that, while lead also used to be a component of household paint, its use as such has now been banned in most progressive countries.

In fact, since 1992, all consumer paint produced for indoor use in Canada and the United States is virtually lead-free.

The fact that it still exists in painted surfaces on and in older houses means it is still a potential hazard, however, especially if those surfaces are cracked or peeling or in the process of being refinished.

But what about automotive paint? Does it present a similar problem? And is it now lead-free?

Just as it was in household paint, lead was a common component of automotive paint through much of the 20th century. It was used both in pigments and as an agent to promote faster drying.

In fact, lead was originally used as a white pigment in paint as far back as the days of the Roman Empire. In modern times, the highest levels of lead are said to be found in the orange, red and yellow tones.

While automotive paints were not subjected to governmental lead restrictions as early as household paints were, the processes adopted to meet other regulations, particularly on volatile organic compounds (VOCs), have now effectively eliminated lead from today’s automotive paints.

Worker Safety - Practice Safe Restoration: Wear a Mask

Do You Work on Classic Cars?

But if you are involved in working with older cars, particularly doing body-work such as sanding or grinding, then the chances are high that you will be exposed to lead, in the dust particles created. The older the vehicle, the higher the lead concentration in the paint may be, although colour and paint type are also major factors.

Vintage car enthusiasts and amateur car restorers who do body-refinishing work in their own garages or backyards could be unknowingly creating health risks for themselves, their families, neighbours and pets.

Lead enters the body when fine particles of lead in dust are swallowed, or when paint fumes or dust are breathed in. Dust generated by sanding and buffing is a major risk. It can settle in soil or household dust and become a constant health risk.

Tips for Working With Lead Paint

For that reason, it is important to take precautions before and when before undertaking any such work and in cleaning up after it is completed.

Companies such as Check4Lead offer swabs and test kits that can identify the presence of lead in the paint before you begin work.

If you must work on or with lead-containing automotive paints, it is important to take precautions to prevent inhalation of lead particles. Such precautions should include wearing a suitable industrial-quality protective face mask and wet-sanding rather than dry-sanding.

In addition, change out of clothes coated with paint dust and rather than wearing them where others may come into contact with the dust.

Lead poisoning is a serious issue and it is still a very real concern, so we shouldn’t be complacent about it.