Toxic Antiques - It seems each decade we become aware of a new material commonly found, that might actually be hazardous. Once upon a time dinnerware and glass were made with lead or even mercury, homes and decorations were lined with asbestos, toys and furniture were painted with lead based paint, and so on. We tend to forget this when we are hypnotized by the allure and beauty of an antique. We often forget to ask ourselves, what is this made of and is it hazardous? But how can you tell the safe antiques from the hazardous ones? And is there anyway you can save an antique you cherish to make it safe for the entire family? The purpose of this article is to teach you how to have the best of both worlds: to fix your antique so it is safe to own.
When paint dries out from age or direct sunlight, it tends to crack and fall off. This creates a paint dust. You've probably seen this from time to time underneath old painted furniture in your home or storage area, in an antique store, or even in your home on a windowsill or floor trim. This can be harmlessóunless the paint is lead-based. Paint that contains lead can be deadly especially to children and pregnant women and the lead actually accumulates in the bones over the years. So, lesson number one, when buying furniture, wood, vases, and toys that are painted be aware that the paint may be lead based. By following a few easy steps you can safely deal with lead paint and still keep your beloved antique.
Transporting items with lead paint
You never want to breath in paint dust, stir it up into the air, or get it on your clothing or in your hair. So, letís say you find an old screen door half covered in paint at a salvage yard. It is a now or never deal and you don't want a vinyl reproduction of the door that reminds you of your childhood on the farm you want the real deal, so you buy it. The first thing you want to do is contain any crumbling paint in a way that does not stir up the dust or create fumes. You may want to put a sticky adhesive on the crumbling paint to keep it in tact during transport. You can also spray the antique with water and dampen the paint to eliminate paint dust until you reach your destination.
But that is just step one. You will definitely want to put two layers of heavy plastic (6-mil) in your car or truck if moving an antique or item with lead paint. Mist the antique to dampen the paint and place is a heavy plastic bag before setting it in your car on top of the plastic you previously laid out. When you get the antique home or to your work area, immediately deal with removing the lead paint. The following will give you guidelines for doing so safely:
Remove lead paint
Never handle lead paint if you are pregnant and never allow children or pets around the paint or the project. Contain your project to one location, seal the area off, and cover heating and cooling vents with thick plastic sheets that you can find at a home improvement store. Make sure you remove everything from your work area. You do not want your lead paint to get on any furniture, carpeting, bedding, curtains, utensils, dishware, toys, foods, etc. If you can't remove an item make sure you cover it with two layers of 6-mil plastic. Also cover the floor or ground with two layers of this plastic, including the baseboards and about two inches of the wall above the baseboards (you don't want lead paint dust to remain on the top rim of the baseboards.)
Remember the movie E.T. when the adorable extraterrestrial was discovered and the entire home was covered in plastic while investigators wore white protective coveralls, hoods, goggles and a respirator? Use that as your guide when you dress work with lead paint (yes, weíre serious.) Your goal is to make sure you donít come in contact with lead paint/dust and then transport it to another area of your home. You can buy painterís coveralls, gloves and goggles at a home improvement store very inexpensively. Make sure your hair is covered so it doesnít collect dust and be sure to cover your mouth and nose with a respirator approved by NIOSH (the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health) or MSHA (the Mine Safety and Health Administration). Paper respirators do not work with lead dust. Also, do not eat, drink, or smoke while working with lead paint.
Determine if you are going to strip the paint, or repaint the antique. If the paint is intact there is no reason you canít paint over the lead paint, in fact, this will help seal it. Another method is to use an which bonds the new material to the lead paint and provides better and longer lasting coverage.
If you decide to strip the paint, there are natural paint removers on the market that are as easy as spreading the paste on the antique and scrapping it off lead paint and all. This is a safe method because the paint absorbs the paste which keeps it from becoming paint dust. Once you scrap it off, dispose of it correctly, wash your antique, clean your work area and yourself and your antique is safe to display or use! There are also solvents and abrasive compounds that are used with a wire brush to remove lead paint.
Never power wash, sand, or use a high heat method to remove lead paint as this can create dust and dangerous fumes. These methods may also be illegal in your area.
Remember, if you are working outdoors, cover the ground with heavy plastic, about 6-mil. Raise the plastic slightly on the edges to make sure the dust and chips do not fall on the ground (you do not want lead to be absorbed into the soil, or fall on the ground where pets and animals, or kids, can eat them.) Make sure there is no wind, and regularly dampen the paint if it dries out from the sun before you remove it.
The clean up
Okay, you've removed the lead paint from your antique, but you must also safely remove the dust and debris from the area, and clean yourself before this story can have a happy ending. Remember, the debris is still lead-based paint, so use caution.
- Regularly during your project,
mist the debris with water to ensure it does not turn to dust that is
- Make sure your debris and paint chips stay on the
protective plastic you laid out. When you are done with the project,
mist the debris, and wipe off your antique again with a wet cloth to
remove any dust that may remain.
- Place the plastic with the debris from the ground into a heavy plastic bag. Vacuum
the room (floor, sideboards, tops of doors, walls and everything, with a
HEPA (High-Efficiency Particulate Air) filtered vacuum.
- Wet - mop the room and wipe the walls, doors, windowsills with a wet cloth with a
solution of water and dishwasher detergent (not dish soap, but rather
- Remove your coveralls and dispose of them also.
- Vacuum your clothes and dispose of them immediately. If working outside it is
a good idea to wait until you are indoors to remove your clothes.
- Shower and be sure to wash your hair! This will prevent the lead dust from spreading.
The debris from an antique will be a small amount, so as long as it is double bagged, you can throw it out with the household trash. NEVER burn it as this will create dangerous fumes. Likewise, never throw buckets of water used to clean out area into the ground. If there are lead chips in the water, filter it out with a cloth as you put the water into the toilet, then wrap the cloth in two layers of heavy plastic and throw it away.
Remember, you can always find information at your state's Health Department or the Environmental Protection Agency about safe methods for removing lead paint, and the proper disposal methods, before taking on any project.
Dishes and ceramics with lead
In antiques, glaze with lead was used in earthenware, lead glass, and bone china (including porcelain) prior to firing the piece. If firing is performed properly the lead is encapsulated in the glaze and of no harm, unless the piece cracks. But if firing is not performed properly, the lead can seep through the glaze into the food or liquid place on the surface. Whether or not the glaze was fired properly, age, wear, and cracks can cause lead dust to seep through. This is also true for porcelain enamel table-tops and bathtubs. Years of use and scrubbing can let the lead out. If your porcelain and ceramics are damaged, consult a professional about restoration. Do not use these antiques for anything other than display. Do not place any food or drink in them, and keep the items away from children and pets.
Whenever you see a chalky dust on glazed item after you have washed it, you have a clear indication that lead is leaching and the item is hazardous. That white residue is lead dust and you need to immediately remove the item. Wrap it is in two layers of heavy plastic. If you are attached to the item, contact a professional for repair option, but still immediately remove the item from your home.
If you would like to know for certain if your item is leaching lead, there are easy methods of testing for lead, such as special swabs that you simply rub on the glaze and if the swab turns a certain color, youíve got lead. Check the internet or local antique stores for such products.
Brass consists of copper and tin, with different degrees of lead. Today, lead makes up only a trace of brass, but antique brass can contain a much higher level. Brass in antiques is usually found in candlesticks and fixtures. Again, if the item is cracked or damaged, you either want to repair or remove it.
You should always be a little skeptical about green glowing things. Vaseline glass is a term given to uranium glass because of the glow it gives off. Uranium on its own is a radioactive substance, but the radiation levels in this glass are low and safe enough for daily exposure. However, do not grind, break, or scrub your glass, or purchase damaged Vaseline glass and this may have toxic results.
Gilding is a process of applying a surface layer of gold onto an object through a firing process involving mercury. Today this process is safe and uses a method called electroplating.
Musty is indicative of mildew, caused by moisture. To get rid of this often headache-inducing smell, pour a layer of baking soda, kitty liter, or charcoal briquettes into a plastic storage bin. Stand the book, or musty antique, in a small bin on top of this layer. Open the book to expose all pages. Put the lid on the plastic storage bin, wait a few days, and check the item. It may be un-mustified, or it may need a few more days.
There is everyday common mold, and then there are serious types. The uncertainty about mold is that it can affect two different people in drastically different ways. It doesn't bother some, while others can have allergic reactions. It is kind of like the bee sting theory: you never know how it will affect you if you've never been stung. So, for caution's sake either avoid buying and dealing with moldy antiques (some simply can't be saved and yes, mold spreads), or use a respirator approved by NIOSH (the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health) or MSHA (the Mine Safety and Health Administration). A mixture of bleach and water should kill the mold.
Toxic textiles and wallpaper
Older wallpaper, textiles, and clothing may contain chromium, mercury, cadmium, lead, arsenic, and/or cyanide which were commonly used to create pigments for paint, food, fabric, and wallpaper in the 18th and 19th centuries. Additionally colors in 19th century books may be created using arsenic salts. Be especially weary fabrics and papers with green from this time period.