LeadCheck® Test Drive

LeadCheck® Swabs, by Hybrivet Systems, Inc., are simple, self-contained, chemical swabs used to quickly test for the presence of lead in paint and other materials. Their use is approved by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for compliance with the agency’s Renovation, Repair, and Painting (RRP) Rule, for pre-1978 homes, target housing, and child-occupied facilities, when testing is performed by a certified lead renovator.

Recently, I purchase two 8-swab LeadCheck® test kits and decided to give the product a try on some trim work in my home. The first test subject was this section of old baseboard from my master bedroom:

 

This baseboard wraps around a timber post. You can tell it’s quite old by the square nails that had joined one of its mitred corners:

 

A LeadCheck® test kit consists of a collection of swabs, a confirmation card (the purpose of which is described later), and a set of instructions for using the swabs on different surfaces. In most cases, you’ll also need a clean, sharp knife. I cleaned my knife’s blade with alcohol and a paper towel before each test. If you’re using a utility knife with a fresh blade, thoroughly clean the blade to ensure any traces of oil have been removed:

 

The swab itself consists of a brush tip and two glass ampoules contained by a flexible tube. To use the swab, you crush the section of the tube marked “A”, which breaks the first ampoule, releasing a powder; then crush the “B” section, breaking the other ampoule and releasing a liquid:

 

Shaking the tube several times with the brush tip pointed downward mixes the powder and liquid, forming the lead detecting reagent. Then, you gently squeeze the mid-section of the tube to force the reagent through the brush, while rubbing the brush against the painted surface for about thirty seconds. If either the surface or brush tip turns pink or red, lead is present in the paint.

 

Nearly all painted surfaces will have multiple coats. To test effectively, one must not only swab the top coat, but all intermediate layers of paint, as well. The LeadCheck® instructions suggest cutting a 1/4” bevelled notch to expose all layers down to the substrate. However, for purposes of these photographs, I scraped about a 1″ diameter circle at a very shallow bevel, with the underlying wood exposed in the center. I found that my baseboard has four distinct layers of paint. The maroon layer, in particular, had an odd texture and hardness to it, almost like a resin, and I’m not quite sure what it’s actually comprised of:

 

I carefully cleared away all particles and dust, then activated a swab and rubbed the test area. As you can see in the photo below, the top layer of paint is apparently lead-free, since it only displays the orange-yellow color of the reagent. However, the second and fourth layers turned pink or red, as did the wood itself. You can also see that the tip of the swab turned a dark red. One can’t readily tell whether the maroon substance is positive or not, but that hardly matters, given that it’s sandwiched between two layers of lead-based paint:

 

 

The confirmation card is used to verify that a particular swab is working correctly. Each circle on the card contains a small quantity of a chemical that mimics lead. If your test does not produce a positive result for lead (neither the paint nor tip turns pink or red), then you force a drop of reagent from the swab on to one of the circles. If the drop turns red, the reagent is considered good, and you can assume your tested coating(s) to be lead-free. [Well, not exactly lead-free, but possibly containing lead at a level below what the EPA considers hazardous; however, see my comments below regarding testing on plaster and sheet rock.] Otherwise, you need to discard the swab, activate a new one, and repeat the test.

 

As part of my test drive, I also verified the swab using the confirmation card, even though I really didn’t need to, as my baseboard had tested positive for lead. The confirmation card verified that the reagent in this swab was good, of course, as it turned red immediately:

 

Next, I tried a second test on another section of baseboard, except this one came from my first floor parlor. I scraped a similar test area, and noticed that this baseboard likewise had four layers of paint:

 

 

I cleaned away the debris, activated a new swab, and rubbed it against the test area. In this case, neither of the three uppermost layers tested positive, but a thin layer just above the wood surface (probably an old primer or sealer coating) turned red, as did the wood itself, and the tip of the swab:

 

 

So, once again, I’ve had a positive test for lead paint on a trim piece. As with the previous test, I likewise placed a drop of reagent on the confirmation card, and it verified that the second swab was good:

 

 

On my next informal test drive, I’m going to try LeadCheck® on several old plaster walls and ceilings in my home, and some metallic surfaces, as well. The LeadCheck® instructions specify that testing paint on plaster and sheet rock (wall board, or gypsum board) must be performed carefully, so as to ensure that the reagent comes in contact with paint only, and does not get contaminated by plaster or sheet rock dust. Sulfates in the dust can cause the reagent not to change color, even if it comes in contact with lead paint. The instructions advise that any subsequent confirmation card test could possibly also fail, due to plaster or sheet rock dust contaminating the brush tip.

 

For this reason, the EPA does not endorse LeadCheck® swabs for use by certified lead renovators in testing paint on plaster or sheet rock surfaces. However, in my capacity purely as a home owner, working in my own residence, were I to carefully test an old plaster surface and succeed at getting a positive result for lead paint, then of course I’m going to conclude that the test was correct, and that lead paint is present. But if I get no such positive result, then I still need to assume that the surface paint contains lead, until a certified lead renovator or other qualified third party can come in and tell me otherwise.

 

Resources and Additional Reading

 

For more information on the dangers of lead, lead safety, and the RRP, visit the EPA’s official page, Lead in Paint, Dust, and Soil.

 

Official product information on LeadCheck® swabs can be found at Hybrivet’s LeadCheck® product page. Also, Rian Murray’s LeadCheck® blog and twitter stream (@leadcheck) are excellent sources of current information on the product and its use.

 

My good friend Sean Lintow Sr., of SLS Construction, has authored an extensive collection of articles on the RRP on his Homeowner’s and Trades Resource Center (HTRC) blog.  And while you’re at it, check out Sean’s recent podcast, “Introduction to RRP and Lead Certification“, on James Dibben’s Blue Collar Radio Network.

 

Another great source of timely information on RRP is Shawn McCadden’s RRPedia.

 

Comprehensive information on the RRP and RRP training is also available from The Contractor Coaching Partnership.

 

 

Recently, I purchase two 8-swab LeadCheck test kits and decided to product a quick try on some trim work in my house that I was confident was coated with old lead paint. The first test subject was this section of old baseboard from my master bedroom:

 

This baseboard wraps around a timber post. You can tell it’s quite old by the square trim nails used to join one of its mitered corners. There’s also some evidence of past termite damage on the reverse side:

 

A LeadCheck test kit consists of a collection of swabs, a confirmation card (the purpose of which is described later on), and a set of instructions for using the swabs on different surfaces. In most cases, you’ll also need a clean, sharp knife. I thoroughly cleaned my knife’s blade with alcohol before each test (if you’re using a utility knife with a new blade, you’ll still need to clean the blade to ensure any traces of oil have been removed):

 

The swab itself consists of a brush tip and two glass ampoules contained by a flexible tube. To use the swab, you crush the section of the tube marked “A”, which breaks the first ampoule, releasing a powder, and then crush the “B” section, breaking the other one and releasing a liquid. Shaking the tube several times with the brush tip facing down mixes the powder and liquid, forming the lead detecting reagent:

 

Next, you gently squeeze the mid-section of the tube to force the reagent through the brush. Then, rub the brush against the painted surface you’re testing for about thirty seconds while gently squeezing reagent out through the brush. If either the surface or brush tip turns pink or red, lead is present in the paint.

 

Nearly all painted surfaces will have multiple layers. To test effectively, one needs to swab not just the surface coating, but all intermediate layers of paint, as well. The LeadCheck instructions suggest cutting a 1/4” notch with about a 45 degree bevel that exposes all layer down to the substrate. However, for purposes of this article, I scraped about a one inch diameter circle at a much shallower bevel in my baseboard, with the wood exposed in the center:

 

As you can see from the photograph, there are four distinct layers of paint. The maroon colored layer, in particular, had a very odd texture and hardness to it, almost like a resin. I am not quite sure what it’s comprised of.

 

I carefully cleared away all the dust and particles, then activated a swab and rubbed the test area. As you can see in the photo below, the top layer of paint is apparently lead-free, since it only displays the orange-yellow coloration of the reagent. However, the second and third layers turned red, as did the wood itself. You can also see that the tip of the swab turned a deep crimsom. We can’t tell whether the maroon substance is positive or not, but that hardly matters, given it’s sandwiched between two layers of lead-based paint:

 

The confirmation card is used to determine false negatives. Each circle on the card contains a small quantity of lead. If your lead test does not produce a positive result (neither the paint nor brush turns pink or red), then you force a drop of reagent from your swab within one of the confirmation card circles. If the drop turns red, the swab is considered good, and you can assume your tested coating(s) to be lead-free (or, more precisely, to possibly contain no more than what the EPA considers a safe level of lead). Otherwise, you need to discard the swab, activate a new one, and repeat the test.

 

As part of my test drive, I also verified the swab using the confirmation card, even though my baseboard tested positive for lead. (The EPA testing protocol, by the way, actually requires Certified Lead Renovators to always verify swabs, regardless of test outcome.) The confirmation card verified that this swab was a good one:

 

Next, I tried a second test on a similar section of baseboard, except this one came from my first floor parlor. I scraped a similar test area, and noticed that this baseboard likewise had four layers of paint:

About John Poole

My interests include historic homes, architectural preservation and restoration, improving the energy performance of old houses, and traditional timber frames.
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5 Responses to LeadCheck® Test Drive

  1. James says:

    Great article John!

    Thanks for the link love.

  2. Very good article & how to John.

    I know Ryan can talk more about the EPA & there refusal to “certify” the product, but I can state it does work great & even exceeded the EPA’s “standard” according to NIST when used properly. Amazingly they still allow it to be used for testing stucco, which in my opinion is harder to test than the other surfaces. LeadCheck also has come up with another method for testing which is still under review by the EPA & will hopefully be approved soon.

    Just as an FYI, at no time are you as a homeowner required to perform or have a Lead test performed by a contractor. Many people will opt out as any positive tests have to be disclosed if and when the property is sold. That said, if you do have young kids present, or have any other concerns about lead, you should have it tested by a professional and those area’s abated of lead. If you are doing or having any renovation work done to your house, no matter what the age, make sure they or you are using dust-free work practices & if built before 78 they are certified (if you own rental properties – you also need to be certified to work on them).

    • John Poole says:

      Thanks for the good words, Sean. It’s a great product and easy to use, and I am sure it performs just as well on plaster/sheet rock, if the tests are done carefully. I hope any new testing methods under review get approved and published soon.

      My comment regarding my role as a homeowner was more just an expression of my own safety ethic — that is, if I strongly suspect lead on a plaster surface, but am not totally confident I’m performing the tests cleanly, I am going to assume there’s lead, and subsequently only use lead-safe practices. In this article, I very deliberately avoided getting into any of the legal or regulatory aspects of RRP itself, as I am not quite yet that well versed in the details.

      Thanks again, and hope you have a great New Year!

  3. John Poole says:

    Thanks, Alexandra! Well, at least you know you could do it, if you had to! Regarding that window shade article, that was one was probably just a little too detailed. But this article was certainly written in the same spirit. Thanks again.