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Lead, the metal pigment that once made paint so long lasting, is also a potent neurotoxin if ingested or inhaled by people or pets. If your house was built before 1978, there's a 75 percent chance that there's a layer of lead lurking in the paint. To lay any doubts to rest, send paint-chip samples from both siding and trim to a testing lab like Macs Lab. Unlike the simple (and frequently unreliable) lead-paint detection kits sold at home centers, a lab test can give you a definitive answer about the chemical makeup of the stuff you'll be scraping.

Now for some good news: lead paint is harmless when left undisturbed. As long as the old paint is well adhered, you can keep it safely encapsulated under a latex primer like Peel Bond and well maintained top coat. Preventing paint failure is the best, and cheapest defense against exposure.

But the time will come, inevitably, when that old paint will be disturbed as part of prepping your house for painting. There aren't any restrictions on hand sanding and scraping because the risk of exposure to dust is minor, but a few simple steps can help keep the lead from getting out of control:

• Spread 6-mil poly drop cloths along the perimeter of your house to catch the falling chips and dispose of them when you're done.

• Wet down surfaces before scraping or sanding to keep debris from going airborne.

• Wear a half-face respirator equipped with a HEPA filter cartridge or N100 disposable respirator and

• Wash hands before eating or drinking.

• Launder work clothes in separate cycle.

When you or your painter plug in a power tool to attack lead paint, the danger level goes up. Check with your local building department to see what they require. You may have to work within a blue-tarp tent or use specialized tools like the Paint Shaver grinder (, which has a dust-collecting shroud connected to HEPA-rated vacuum.

Non-flammable paint strippers are another acceptable low-dust alternative, but they can be slow, messy, and expensive.

Heat has long been used to soften old paint so it can be easily scraped off. The problem is that lead starts to vaporize when heated over 752 degrees F, and you can end up breathing in the poisonous fumes. A HEPA respirator(CK) and copious ventilation, should keep you safe. Better yet, avoid using heat guns or plates unless they have temperature controls. Infrared paint strippers such as Speedheater are much safer because they work well below lead's vaporization temperature.

Faced with strict local removal and disposal regulations, many painters prefer to leave lead removal to licensed subcontractors. "Abatement is more than just having the equipment and sucking up the dust," says Portland, Ore., painting contractor Kathleen George. "You need to understand and follow all the rules. I prefer calling in a pro so that I can focus on painting."

For more information, including a listing of risk assessors who can determine the extent of paint problems, and certified abatement contractors who can help solve them, contact The National Lead Information Center or call them at 800-424-5323.