Lead Based Paint in Construction Work

Most buildings and homes decorated in Australia before 1970 contain lead paint. Old paint on metal bridges and plant may also contain lead. Deteriorating paint can peel off in large pieces; flake off in smaller chips or into a fine powder. Lead paint can be dangerous if it is peeling or breaking down. Old lead paint is not only confined inside the building, but may also contaminate other nearby areas, such as soil underneath the house or building.

Lead paint and lead contaminated dust is a major source of health risks to children and adults. Construction workers can be exposed to lead when they are working in places where lead dust is present or when opening up or demolishing walls and ceilings. As a result, control measures for the removal of lead dust or old paint are necessary.

The hazards

Lead can harm virtually every organ in the human body, especially the brain, kidney and reproductive system. Lead can enter the body through several routes, for example the respiratory tract, the gastrointestinal tract and through skin absorption. Lead gets into the body when you breathe in lead dust or fumes in air. If you swallow food or water that is contaminated by lead dust, small amounts of lead can gradually build up in the body and cause health problems.

Most people with increased blood lead levels are asymptomatic; adults may not display symptoms until blood levels reach 60 micrograms per decilitre (µg/dL) or 2.9 micromoles per litre (µmol/L) and above. Children generally do not show symptoms of lead intoxication until blood lead levels reach 45 to 55 µg/dL (2.7 to 2.64 µmol/L). Yet, some may be asymptomatic even when blood lead levels are as high as 60 to 70 µg/dL (2.89 to 3.38 µmol/L).

The National Health and Medical Research Council has set guidelines for permissible levels of lead in the blood and in ambient air in Australia. It set a specific goal “to achieve for all Australians a blood lead level of below ten micrograms per decilitre (0.48 micromoles per litre).”

Lead cannot be excreted. It stores in the body for up to 20-30 years in bone, from where it can be mobilized back into the blood. From a single exposure, lead is readily absorbed and quickly distributed to the following areas of the body: blood (1%), soft tissue (4%) and bones/teeth (95%). Anaemia can occur if lead accumulates in blood and in blood-forming tissues (bone marrow). Lead distorts the production of red blood cells in the body.

When symptoms first appear, people usually feel a headache or lethargy. Symptoms of moderate to severe exposure include irritability, abdominal pain or constipation, aggressiveness and colic leading to seizures and death. Lead poisoning in children may manifest as developmental delay, learning difficulties or other behavioural problems.


There are guidelines to protect you during work by reducing the possibility of being exposed to lead dust or fumes.

  • Ask the contractor if paints contain lead. Check the lead content in paint and assess the risk of lead exposure from peeling paint and lead dust. If you are unsure whether there is lead, act as if the paint contains lead.
  • If the paint contains lead, a regulated area should be established at the work site. Workers should wear nominated protective clothing and equipment in this regulated area. Heavy-duty plastic sheeting must be used to seal off work areas, to protect items and to collect debris.
  • Respirators should be used (at no cost to the employee) whenever the concentration of lead is at or above the Exposure Standard. All respirators selected and used should be in accordance with Australian Standards AS 1715 and AS 1716.
  • Work clothes should be worn that do not catch dust or flakes in pockets or cuffs are. (Consider using disposable overalls and plastic boot covers.) Be sure not to wear the contaminated clothing when leaving for home.
  • The employer is required to provide for cleaning, laundering, or disposal of protective clothing and equipment. Furthermore, the employer has the responsibility to repair or replace required protective clothing and equipment as needed. Clean work clothing is to be provided at least weekly to employees whose exposure levels are above the Exposure Standard.
  • Gloves, hats and shoes or disposal shoe coverlets should be used.
  • Adequate shower facilities and clean areas for changing and hand washing should be provided for all employees who work in lead-contaminated areas. Do not smoke, eat, or drink in and around areas of work on lead paint.
  • An industrial vacuum cleaner fitted with High Efficiency Particulate Air (HEPA) filters must be used to clean up any visible dust and residues.
  • Large amounts of lead paint must be removed by an experienced lead safe contractor.
  • If removing any lead-based paint, use spray bottles to wet the surface and hand sand with wet-and-dry sandpaper. Do not use power sanders or heat guns. (If a heat gun must be used, use it on the lowest heat setting and don’t linger in one spot too long.)

This Fact Sheet is courtesy of the Workers Health Centre.

More info:
Download the Lead Based Paint in Construction Work Fact Sheet

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