Removing old paint can pose big hazards if not done right

Consumer Reports News: June 11, 2007 02:57 PM

We've recently seen several historic architectural treasures ravaged by fires that officials attributed to paint renovation projects, and, most likely, the inappropriate use of heat guns or open-flame torches to strip old paint.  The latest casualty was the Georgetown Neighborhood Library in Washington, D.C. — though contractors claim they were not responsible. In recent years, several Hudson River homes in neighborhoods near Consumers Union's headquarters have also been severely damaged when homeowners and professionals alike failed to take necessary precautions. In one recent case, the fire came after years of hard, expensive efforts to meticulously restore historic architectural artifacts that went up in flames in a matter of minutes. Contractors at the time were removing the last bits of old exterior paint.   

Though paint stripping accounts for a small percentage of residential fires (open flames and torches were associated with about 5 percent of house fires that occurred in the U.S. last year; heat gun-related fires aren't tracked), it's certainly among the most preventable causes, challenging though it may be. Whether you use heat, chemicals, or elbow grease — or more likely, some combination of the three — stripping paint calls for an abundance of caution.   

First, consider whether lead paint may be present, most likely in homes built before 1978, when lead in paint was banned. If you have an old home, be sure and visit the EPA's Web site to learn about lead paint hazards and how to manage them. Lead paint should only be removed by contractors who are certified to remove it safely, taking all the appropriate precautions to minimize contamination and exposure in and around the home. In particular, young children, pregnant women and pets should not be present when lead paint is being removed.   

Lead paint or no, follow our tips on hiring any contractor. Adequate protective equipment should be used, including gloves and respirators appropriate for whatever dust and fumes are generated. Fire extinguishers should be readily accessible, and anyone working should have access to a phone in case anything goes wrong. If you must use heat tools, choose an air heat gun over an open-flame torch, and use it carefully, on the lowest setting necessary for the job. Typical acrylic latex paint softens at around 300 degrees Fahrenheit. Never mix heat tools with chemical paint strippers and flammable solvents. Paint should not smoke, vaporize or burn, but simply soften to facilitate removal. Especially in old homes, fires can easily ignite in the walls and travel quickly to other parts of the house, so it's important to stay alert for signs of warmth along walls and call 911 immediately in any case where fire is suspected. Above all, take your time. Pushing the process too quickly is often where the problems begin. 

Finally, be careful using ladders and scaffolding. Ladder-related injuries  in the home — which can be severe and life-changing — doubled from 1990 through 2005. You can find more information about ladder safety here.

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