Most of us are well aware of the dangers of lead poisoning and the health problems associated with exposure — not something you want to ignore. Lead dust can settle on surfaces in your home and blow from ventilation units, creating a toxic environment.
Why is there lead dust in my HVAC unit? Lead dust may be in your HVAC unit if your air ducts are leaking, dirty, or old – and your home was painted with lead-based paint before its being banned by the federal government in 1978. These circumstances could result in contaminated dust and debris circulating throughout your home from forced air ducts.
With homes built or renovated before the recognition of the harmful effects of lead, there is a strong possibility that any dust that has built up over time, particularly in an old HVAC (heating, ventilation, and air conditioning) system, may contain particles of lead.
Continue reading to learn more about what to do if you are concerned that there is lead dust in your HVAC system.
What is Lead Dust?
Lead is a natural element that you can find in small amounts in the earth’s crust, but it can also be harmful. Prior to the recognition of its toxic effects, manufacturers often used it in paints, pipes, and plumbing materials – and even cosmetics (source).
Thankfully, this is no longer the case, and state regulation has required standards that work toward the elimination of any potential sources of lead in products we use or come into contact with every day.
Still, the fact remains that many buildings — including homes, industrial sites, and schools — have residual lead-based contaminants.
As these older buildings deteriorate, they can then release these lead particles into the air. Those tiny lead particles can travel reasonably far, ultimately sticking to and settling with other dust, dirt, and debris.
In simple terms, lead dust results from any deterioration of lead-based products, no matter how long ago they were used. In your home, especially if it’s older, lead-based paint is most likely the culprit behind the lead dust.
Even with coats of newer paint on top of the old, especially around windows and doors, paint that is chipping or deteriorating underneath may produce contaminated dust.
When that dust is disturbed, it very quickly circulates into the air. At less than 0.7 microns in size, it is impossible to see and even more difficult to contain (source).
Lead dust is dust that is not only an unsightly nuisance but a dangerous one. Dust contaminated with lead fragments is one of the primary sources of lead poisoning.
Effects of Exposure
Unfortunately, there is no amount of lead exposure that is safe, and that is why homebuilders and agencies removed products containing lead from use long ago.
Lead is a “cumulative toxin,” in that it builds up in the body over time from repeated exposure, and is stored in the teeth and bones (source). It is particularly harmful to children and pregnant women, but will negatively impact anyone exposed.
Fortunately, there are certainly ways to protect yourself and prevent lead exposure, including taking the necessary steps to make sure that your HVAC system is well maintained and free of contaminants, allowing for healthy air ventilation throughout your home.
A Healthy HVAC System
A healthy HVAC system is important for you and your family’s health. Even without lead-contaminated dust, a dirty or clogged HVAC system is going to affect the air quality in your home and eventually cause additional problems with ventilation, heating, and air conditioning.
If you notice that surfaces in your home are more dusty than normal, or if you can see a lot of dust being blown from your vents when your heat or AC is running, it likely is time for you to clean your HVAC system.
You may also notice a moldy smell when you have the heat or AC turned on. If that is the case, you likely have mold growth or mildew, which can not only cause breathing problems but also lead to additional bacterial growth.
There are differences between mold and mildew and how both can affect your HVAC system. To learn more, read “The Difference Between Mold and Mildew.”
A healthy system requires replacement of air filters too. Most experts recommend replacements every six months or so, depending on where you live and how many people reside in your home.
We’ll talk about the importance of filters — and the specific type you need when it comes to lead dust — a bit more below.
But, if you have been staying on top of these essential chores and still find excessive dust build-up, it’s worth calling a certified technician who can determine what the problem is and test for lead contamination.
Remember, if your home was built or renovated – even minor upgrades – prior to 1978, it’s worth taking extra precaution when it comes to making sure that your air ducts are contaminant free.
Air Ducts and Your HVAC System
A key component of your HVAC system is your air ducts. They are the tubes that work to recycle and deliver air throughout your home, keeping your heat, air conditioning, and ventilation working optimally.
The good news is that the air ducts work to pull in surrounding air – both from inside and outside, and use that same air – once it is filtered – to heat, cool, and continually ventilate your home.
This system plays an important role keeping allergens, dirt, and debris low.
But, when the ductwork in your HVAC system is old – old enough that it has been in use prior to the ban on lead-based paint – it is a primary “hot spot” for buildup, containing on average one-third of the lead dust in your home (source).
And, when you consider how those air ducts work, that contaminated dust build-up is going to be pushed through your HVAC system, resettling on surfaces, including floors, carpeting, and furniture.
Lead Dust in Air Ducts – What Now?
Those heavy layers of dust in your ductwork, especially when contaminated with lead, need to be thoroughly cleaned, or potentially replaced, to avoid recirculating the contaminated air and prevent exposure to high levels of lead toxicity.
The challenge is that leaded dust is incredibly tiny, and it’s not necessarily like the fine grey dust you will see on the surfaces of bookshelves.
So, there are essentially two things you’ll want to consider – a full cleaning and a HEPA filter for use with your HVAC system.
A HEPA filter is going to trap some of that contaminated dust much more effectively than a regular filter. If you look into types of air filters, they each have what is called a “MERV” (Minimum Efficiency Reporting Value) rating. The higher this rating, the more efficient it is at trapping dust.
But even a filter with a high MERV rating is not going to trap lead dust. You’ll need a HEPA filter. A HEPA filter will help to keep your vents cleaner and dust-free.
Additionally, a HEPA filter is capable of trapping up to 99.97% of dust and, unlike a standard filter, it can also trap dust contaminated with lead (source).
Still, it is only part of the solution, and if your goal is to remove lead dust altogether, there are also other steps you’ll need to take.
Removing Lead Dust from Air Ducts
We’ll talk more about how to clean surfaces in the next section, but the first step is to have someone come and inspect your HVAC system – and clean it.
Most of the surfaces within your system that will contain a buildup of lead dust or even mold will not be visible externally, so this is not a DIY job.
And remember, if there is lead in your HVAC system, it is also going to be on other surfaces in your home because of the way the vent system works.
Without taking care of this issue first, you’re going to have a constant cycle of lead circulating throughout your house.
Testing for Lead
Some tests can determine if dust build-up contains lead, and there are even ways to test surfaces yourself before calling a technician by using a paint tester on old painted surfaces.
But, it’s pretty safe to say that if you live in an older building (built before 1978), you are dealing with lead exposure.
If you have old windows, for example, you might notice that each time you open or close them, old paint begins to chip and peel away. You can take a chemical paint tester to the surface, and it will be able to detect lead, even if it is present layers below new coatings.
If you do find a positive result for lead, then it is highly likely that that lead is also contaminating your HVAC system, and you will need a professional to clean it.
As for the other areas of your home, there are ways to effectively clean to remove contaminated dust, starting with another use for HEPA filters as well as other sanitization techniques.
Cleaning Lead Dust from Surfaces in Your Home
The most important thing you can first do is to make sure that, if you do have old painted surfaces, they are not peeling.
Peeling paint is a major cause of lead dust and, even though it might seem counterintuitive, don’t sand the surfaces down.
Sanding will only create more dust. A better option is to either have the windows repainted or even replaced, if possible.
You can also purchase a special type of vacuum as well as air purifiers to keep you and your family safe from the dangers of lead dust.
HEPA Filters and Vacuuming
Remember earlier we stated that lead dust is incredibly small. A regular vacuum is merely going to lift that dust and then blow it back into the air because the filter in a typical household vacuum cannot trap those tiny particles containing lead.
When vacuuming your home, you want to be sure that you have a particular type of vacuum cleaner that also contains a HEPA filter, similar to the filters in your ventilation system.
This type of filter is much, much more effective at trapping contaminated dust when you are cleaning, specifically those that are considerably smaller than other particles at 0.3 microns in size (source).
Since lead is around 0.7 microns, a HEPA filter is more effective — around 99 percent — in capturing those particles.
But it’s not foolproof. There’s more cleaning to be done as a HEPA filter vacuum is only going to solve a portion of the problem and cannot fully remove lead dust.
If you do not have a HEPA filter vacuum, you can also use a wet/dry vacuum using the wet setting. Water will help to absorb lead dust, but you’ll want to make sure that you have a few inches of water on the bottom of the canister.
Do not use the dry setting as this will result in a similar scenario as using a household vacuum.
While the HEPA filter is a solid start, it’s the water that we need to go into next. Water is actually more effective at cleaning lead dust than anything else.
Wiping Down Surfaces with Water
In addition to vacuuming, dusting is a crucial part of the cleaning process. But in this instance, we are not talking about microfiber cloths or feather dusters. To remove lead dust, you need to use water – what people sometimes refer to as “wet washing.”
Before you start, the best advice is to get two buckets and mark each clearly so that you know which contains the dirty water and which contains clean water. Mixing these up is going to set you right back to starting position.
You also want to make sure that you wear protective gloves and even a mask to avoid exposing yourself further to lead contaminants.
You don’t need any special cleaning agents or chemicals – a simple solution of soap and water will be acceptable or any purchased cleaning solution.
Remove any loose debris first, throwing pieces of chipped paint or wood into a trash bag that you will remove once you are finished. Using a sponge and your cleaning solution, wipe down windows, walls, and other surfaces, including hardwood floors.
For the most part, you’ll want to make sure that each of the following surfaces has been wet washed:
1. Ceilings and walls
2. Windows and window frames
3. Interior and exterior window sills
4. Radiators and baseboards
5. Floors and vents
Once you finish washing, you’ll also need to rinse, which is where the second bucket comes into play. It may seem like an additional unnecessary step, but it is essential to ensure that you’ve removed any lead residue.
Upholstery and Furniture Cleaning
The best way to remove lead dust from upholstery, including carpets and curtains, is to throw them into your washing machine. If you cannot wash them without ruining them, consider replacing them.
When cleaning lead dust from upholstered furniture, you can still use a cleaning solution as well, but you’ll want to be careful that doing so does not ruin or damage your fabric.
A better option is to vacuum your furniture, but remember to use only a vacuum with a HEPA filter. You’ll want to pass over the upholstery a few times in multiple directions to ensure that you’ve picked up as much dust as possible.
A Few More Cleaning Tips
There are lots of general recommendations when it comes to cleaning, and they apply to the removal of lead dust as well.
Always start top to bottom. Before cleaning the floors, make sure you’ve tackled all other surfaces above first — including ceilings and ceiling fans.
When you are cleaning with water and soap, replace your rags more frequently than you normally would so you avoid spreading any lead-contaminated debris elsewhere.
Once you’ve finished with the cleaning, you can also add another layer of cleaning and protection with an air purifier – and here again, you’ll want one with a HEPA filter.
Air Purifiers and Lead Dust Removal
There are quite a few versions of air purifiers on the market, and some don’t do much more than make the air smell a bit better with essential oils or add moisture to the air. Although, there are certainly benefits to both.
But when it comes to working with lead dust removal, you will want a specialized air purifier that, again, comes with a HEPA filter.
Similar to the filters in your HVAC system and vacuum, a purifier with a specially designed HEPA filter is going to continue to trap some of the residual lead dust in the air
The key factor to note is that you are looking for a HEPA filter that explicitly states that it is capable of removing particles as small as 0.3 microns or specially designed for lead dust. You may even find a few that some individuals call “air scrubbers.”
The price ranges for these go from incredibly low to considerably more expensive, so a bit of research will be required to ensure that you are getting the product you are looking for.
Removal of lead dust is possible, but it is going to be a substantial amount of work. Before you tackle any inside cleaning, be sure to have your HVAC system evaluated, cleaned, and possibly replaced.
Remember, HEPA filters are key to lead dust removal and cleaning. The cleaning may sound daunting but, in the long run, it is what is going to keep you and your loved ones safe from potential lead poisoning.
Don’t wait to find out later if your dust is contaminated – if your home was built or renovated at any time prior to 1978, removal of lead dust is essential for your safety.