Paints and solvents are under increasing scrutiny for health and environmental reasons, with concerns about lead poisoning and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) spurring reformulations, new regulations, product bans, and standards for testing and removing threats that linger on the walls decades after old dangerous products have disappeared from the shelves.

Paint manufacturers must prepare material safety data sheets for their products; access them at paint stores or online at the manufacturers’ websites.

Another source of information is the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). For info about lead, check; for VOCs,

These are the major issues:

Protecting Your Family from Lead Exposure

In 1978 the federal government banned the use of lead-based paint in homes after long-term studies showed that lead causes severe health problems, especially in children under age six, damaging their nervous systems even before birth. Although lead paint is off the market, millions of homes still contain this potential toxin. If it’s in good condition, lead-based paint probably isn’t a hazard, but scraping and sanding changes that. The dust produced by renovation work can be very harmful.

Because of these dangers, in 2008 the EPA issued the Renovation, Repair and Painting (or “RRP”) Rule, which requires contractors working in pre-1978 homes to be Lead-Safe Certified and use special work practices to contain and clean up dust. Companies become certified by applying to the EPA (or an EPA-authorized state) and having their workers or supervisors take a course on work practices to minimize exposure to lead during projects.

Even small projects are covered by the law, which kicks in when more than six square feet of painted surface inside or 20 square feet outside are disturbed. The rule also applies to landlords who renovate rental properties, but it doesn’t apply to DIYers—although you’ll obviously want to protect your kids and kids who visit your home from exposure to lead-based paint.

Most homeowners are unaware of the law, but all contractors should know their obligations. Unfortunately, many companies still aren’t doing what they should. Checkbook strongly urges anyone who lives in a pre-1978 home to hire only Lead-Safe Certified contractors and demand that workers follow the law.

To evaluate the risks of lead-based paint in your home, do the following:

  • Have your children tested. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, “There is simply no safe level of lead exposure for children.” All children should be screened for lead at ages one and two. For more information, check the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention pamphlet “What Do Parents Need to Know to Protect Their Children?” and other information available at
  • If a blood test indicates your child has been exposed to lead, get a lead-certified professional to check your home. That inspection will indicate only the lead content of painted surfaces—not if they are a hazard or how to deal with them. A risk assessment, conducted by a certified inspector, will indicate sources of serious lead exposure and ways to eliminate them. The risk assessment is thorough and expensive—about $500 plus around $10 to $15 per lab sample—but if your child has been exposed, you need to eliminate additional exposure.
  • If your home was built before 1978, ask prospective contractors to show proof of their Lead-Safe certification. In any contracts you sign, include a statement saying that the contractor “will follow EPA regulations for containing the work area and minimizing the generation of lead-paint dust.”

The tasks a contractor—or you, the DIYer—should do to minimize lead exposure depend on the type of work, but in general:

  • Children and women who could possibly be pregnant should stay out of work areas until work and cleanup is complete.
  • Identify in advance any surfaces that might contain lead-based paint that might be disturbed while work is performed. Unless absolutely necessary, don’t disturb these surfaces by sanding, scraping, or cutting.
  • If possible, take materials containing lead-based paint outside to work on.
  • Seal off rooms where work is performed from the rest of the home.
  • Remove all furnishings in the work area.
  • Workers should wear protective clothing, including respirators.
  • Properly dispose of all waste generated during the work.
  • Power tools used to sand or sand-blast should be equipped with shrouds and HEPA-filtered vacuum attachments.
  • After completion of work, thoroughly vacuum and clean all surfaces.
  • After cleanup, test to determine if cleanup was adequate.

It takes extra effort to follow the law. But don’t assume this extra work comes at a steep price—and don’t allow companies to use the threat of sky-high bills to persuade you to allow them to skimp on the rules. We find that most painting businesses routinely charge no more when they have to follow the lead-safe law, and those that do assess only a $100 to $200 fee for large jobs. Such a surcharge is a small price to pay to eliminate a potential health hazard to your kids.


VOCs are a large group of carbon-based chemicals that can become airborne at room temperature, a process called “off-gassing.” Thousands of products contain VOCs, including hundreds around the house, not just paint.

VOCs haven’t been studied as long as older issues, such as lead in paint. Some are more toxic than others, and health risks vary widely, depending on the concentration, amount of exposure, and the particular chemical in question. The subject isn’t settled; neither are the regulations. Some states mandate considerably lower levels than others. One of the concerns behind the crackdown is the effect of VOCs on smog. But health risks loom large, including short-term exposure to high VOC levels that may cause headaches, nausea, dizziness, and other problems, while long-term exposure may increase the risk of organ and nervous system damage.

Paint manufacturers have responded by reformulating their products to emit lower levels of VOCs but still perform well. But even with low-VOC-emitting paint, the most practical protection is to limit your exposure. Where house painting is concerned, several steps will help:

  • Carefully follow directions on product labels.
  • Ventilate the work area using fans to maximize the flow of fresh air, which can dilute and reduce fumes.
  • Reduce temperature and humidity, if possible. Materials typically off-gas VOCs at a greater rate in warmer, damper conditions.