Condo Blues: How to Test for Lead Paint on Flea Market Finds

Monday, April 4, 2016

How to Test for Lead Paint on Flea Market Finds

We are the first owners of our condo built long after the US 1978 lead paint ban. We don’t have peeling paint and my family doesn’t lick the walls (which in my opinion would mean we have a bigger problem!) As far as any scaremongering about lead being everywhere in every home, we figured we’re good.


Maybe not.

Pin this post for reference! 

I like to upcycle and recycle found, salvage, and old stuff in my DIY projects. Swap meets, antique shows, and flea markets are my playgrounds. Some of my favorite transformations started out as thrift store finds or from the side of the road. I didn’t think I had to worry about lead in my project materials because I generally steer clear of chipping paint because it is a pain to sand smooth.

I recently discovered chipping paint does not mean an item is covered in lead paint. Neither does the color of the paint. Actually  bare wood or stained items can test positive for lead because of something in the stain or varnish.

I’m not saying this to scare you or make you freak out. I’ve had plenty of times when my lead test swab tests negative for lead on a delightfully old and chippy painted item – yay! I’m mentioning it because this is what I thought until I saw this video outtake from Tamara Ruben’s documentary MisLead: America's Secret Epidemic about antique stores.

Tamara is a friend who started the Lead Safe America Foundation after her children were lead poisoned from renovation dust in their older home because the contractor did not take proper precautions. Is this clip a little alarmist? Possibly. I don’t know how or if lead can leach from Christmas tree lights but I do know as a lifelong history buff that many old time typesetters were considered crazy because they got lead poisoning from handling lead type blocks on a daily basis and there is no way I’d have one or a type drawer in my house. As always, your mileage may vary.

According to the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) more  people get lead poisoning from lead dust in the air than from chipping lead paint on a wall.

So something simple as cutting, drilling, or refinishing an item with lead paint can make lead dust in the air, into you,  and cause a world of hurt.

Fortunately there is a simple and inexpensive way to test recycled and salvaged junk for lead before you decide it something you want to take home with you.

DIY Test for Lead Paint at Home


EPA recognizes three lead test kits that comply with the RRP rule (Lead Renovation, Repair and Painting rule:) :
  • 3M LeadCheck Swabs – The most widely available in most home improvement stores and Amazon.
  • D-Lead Lead Paint Test Kit – Not found in many US cities and states (including mine)
  • State of Massachusetts lead test kits – Professionals that come to your home to test your items for lead.

I am using 3M LeadCheck Swabs (you can buy them from my Amazon affiliate link here) for this tutorial because that’s what I use at home. I try to carry them in my purse when I know I’m going junking just to be on the safe side too.

1. The 3M Lead Test Swab comes in a cardboard sleeve that contains a glass vial with two glass chambers inside. Each chamber holds a separate component that need to be mixed together in order to make the compound that tests if lead is present in the finish of the item.

 I slipped my test swab out of the cardboard tube so you can see the components.

2. Crush the top of the cardboard tube together marked Crush A  and crush the bottom of the cardboard tube together marked Crush B. This will allow you to mix to two test components together.

3. Shake the swab to mix the ingredients together.

4. Point the swab facing down and squeeze the sides until you see yellow liquid in the tip of the lead test swab. You can now use it to test the surface for lead.

5. Rub the lead test swab on a small area of your surface for 30 seconds or so while squeezing gently squeezing the liquid into the head of the test swab.

The swab tests best when you wipe the tip flat across the paint you are testing for lead unlike my recreation here. This is the best I could do when taking a one handed photo!

6. Check the end of the swab for the results:

  • Red or Pink – The items tests positive for lead. The tests says the general rule is the darker the pink to red color the higher the hazardous lead content. 
  • No change – The item tests negative for lead. The liquid in the swab did not detect lead in the surface. You can verify the swab was mixed correctly by rubbing the swab on one of the circles on the  Test Confirmation Card that comes with the lead testing kit. The circle should turn pink if the negative swab is mixed correctly.

Caution: Handle the test card carefully. The circles on the card contain a small amount of lead.
This is what the Test Confirmation Card looks like before you use it.

According to 3M, you get one test per swab. Which means if you get a negative result, you can’t reuse that swab to test another item.

The paint on my old wood window tests negative for lead! What do you think I’m going to do with it?

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