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Lead: Much Ado about Nothing?

MONDAY, JULY 28, 2014

By Warren Brand

I can think of few corrosion protective materials more durable, functional and versatile than lead. Setting aside the health issues for a moment, the history of lead is truly remarkable—like the Swiss Army Knife of materials.

Discovered about 3,000 BC, lead was widely used by the Romans not only to make pipes and gutters, but also for use in medicine and wine.

In fact, some historians believe that the fall of the Roman Empire can be attributed to severe lead poisoning of the nobility.

Ludi Ling / Wikimedia Commons

From wine sweeteners to water pipe linings, lead found many uses in ancient Rome. Some ideas proved better than others.

Lead was so widely used in the Middle Ages that the word plumber came from the Latin plumbarius, for "one who works with lead."

Paint Matters

As we all know, lead was also used extensively in homes throughout the United States. Lead-based paint adhered exceedingly well to wood, tended not to crack, and provided a hard, smooth surface that was easy to keep clean.

Unfortunately, it also has a sweet taste, which is why the Romans used it in wine—and why children ended up ingesting it and becoming ill.

Lead also has remarkable corrosion-resistant characteristics pertaining to carbon steel.  I’ve seen old, decrepit tractors on the side of dirt farm roads with lead-paint jobs that are 40 to 60 years old but look brand new.

If you can find an old-time painter who has applied lead paint, he will undoubtedly wax poetic about how smoothly the paint could be applied. Some of them will tell you that nothing really has ever taken its place.

Out, Out, Damned Lead...

We have worked on a couple of industrial projects recently where lead paint was involved. In both cases, our clients’ initial knee-jerk response was to remove the lead.

Photos: Warren Brand unless noted

Why are consultants and engineering firms so quick to recommend removal of lead paint, even when testing shows good adhesion of the existing coating?

Now, I’ve been in the coating industry for the better part of 30 years. I have applied hundreds of different coatings and read as many articles on a variety of topics—including, of course, how to deal with lead.

And after all that, I have never understood the apparent initial inclination to remove lead.  In both of our recent projects, the clients began submitting RFQs for lead removal the moment they identified the lead.

Or Not...

I respectfully said, “Well, hang on now and let’s spend a few minutes thinking this through.”

For the purposes of this blog, we’ll pick one of the two examples, which we’ll refer to as the “lead primer on the coal stacker.”  A coal stacker is a massive piece of machinery used to move coal.

Taking our coal stacker out of service would have cost our client about $500,000 per day for a variety of logistical reasons.

We identified lead in the primer and, as mentioned above, the client started getting quotes on lead removal. The quotes were coming in between $100,000 and $140,000, and the lead removal would take about two weeks.

Testing and Options

I climbed up the moving coal stacker (a very cool experience that I highly recommend, should you get the opportunity), poked around with the knife of my Gerber multitool a bit, and found that the lead seemed pretty well adhered.

Wikimedia Commons / Bernard S. Jansen

Lead coating removal on a coal stacker or other huge piece of equipment could mean millions of dollars in down time—an extremely costly consideration.

We poked around a bit further with an adhesion tester and found it to be really well adhered.

Finally, we conducted a proof of concept: We water-blasted the surface at about 4,300 psi and were able to sufficiently clean and remove the loose material, while leaving well-adhered topcoat and all of the primer nicely intact.

We even created comparators for the water blasters to use to know how much material to remove and what to leave.

We then identified what we call an “optimal coating solution” and applied it as part of the proof of concept. In this case, our optimal solution was a “soft” single-component material that was ideal for the task at hand.

Saving Millions

Well, to make a long story short, the owner took our advice. We saved them several million dollars by not having to remove the lead primer. Furthermore, our research and data indicate that the new coating should last in excess of 20 years with no maintenance.


We water-blasted the surface at about 4,300 psi and were able (right of white line) to sufficiently clean and remove the loose material, while leaving well-adhered topcoat and all of the primer nicely intact.

But, I’m still scratching my head and trying to figure out what drives that general tendency to remove lead paint. And I would very much like to hear your thoughts.

Don't Just Do It

One of our consulting strategies is that we don’t do anything unless there is a compelling technical, financial or other reason to do it.

Unlike many engineering and consulting firms who earn their fees by advising clients to do stuff, our starting point for our first evaluation is, “Do we need to do anything at all?”

And our second evaluation begins with, “What are the most technically responsible options and the cost benefit analysis of these options?”

Profits and Prudence

I suspect that some of the inclination to remove lead is from highly conservative engineering firms and consultants that are not shy about spending their client’s money.

Also, it’s an exceedingly safe recommendation.  That is, it reduces any risk to the consultant by recommending complete removal. In my humble opinion, however, it’s not always in the best interest of the client.

And our value proposition is very, very simple—to do that which is in the best interest of the client above all else. 

I view my job as working with the client to manage and address risk in a manner that is best for the client—not for my company.

Leaving Well Enough Alone

We’ve run into this attitude in other areas as well.


We did our homework and recommended leaving the coating in place. It was adhering well, protecting well, and was unlikely to be disturbed.

We’ll conduct a condition survey and find a coating system largely intact and performing well, only to be the minority voice in suggesting that the owner leave the coating alone and touch up only as required.

All too often, we conduct peer reviews and talk to owners where the consulting recommendation is complete removal and application of a standard coating system. We just reviewed a proposal from a local engineering firm that recommended a tri-coat (zinc, intermediate epoxy, urethane), for anchor bolts on a large water tank.

The logistics were impossible, and the coating system was not the optimal solution for the situation.

Tell Me Why

In the case of the coal stacker, why would anyone want to remove the lead?

It was well-adhered (in excess of 550 psi, as I recall). It was doing its job of providing excellent corrosion protection. We identified a “soft” flexible coating that would impart very little surface stress to the existing primer.  It was a heavy-duty industrial site and would be so forever.

If they ever wanted to remove the lead, they now had decades to budget and plan for it.

I’m looking forward to people wiser than myself (which is pretty much all of you) to help me understand why folks are so quick to recommend removal.


Warren Brand

Warren Brand’s coatings career has ranged from entry-level field painting to the presidency of two successful companies. Over nearly three decades, he has project-managed thousands of coating installations and developed specs for thousands of paint and coating applications. NACE Level 3 and SSPC PCS certified, Brand, an MBA and martial-arts instructor, now heads Chicago Corrosion Group, a leading coatings consultancy. Contact Warren.



Tagged categories: Coating Materials; Consultants; NACE; Protective Coating Specialist (PCS); Protective coatings; Specification writing; SSPC; Chicago Coatings Group; Lead; Overcoating lead; Program/Project Management; Project Management

Comment from Peter Rushen, (7/29/2014, 2:26 AM)

"We water-blasted the surface at about 4,300 psi and were able to sufficiently clean and remove the loose material", how did you control the waste water run off (which contained lead) on a project of this size?

Comment from M. Halliwell, (7/29/2014, 11:17 AM)

I know my experiences with lead are somewhat different. With near 100 year old lead paint (many local bridges are from the early days of the city and are now being rehabed or replaced), it is rare that the coating is competent enough to be left in place for another 10-20 years. For buildings, if things are intact, some are leaving it in place (assuming the building is remaining for a while) while others want it dealt with now. The driver for the "now" crowd is partly it now, save and do it later with expense of managing the lead in the interim or take the hit in the value of the building when you sell it. When it comes to demolition projects, leachability and disposal become a significant issue...sometimes requiring handling and disposal as hazardous waste. I think it is the hazardous waste designation when the lead is leachable that scares the heck out of owners and they want it gone.

Comment from peter gibson, (7/29/2014, 11:51 AM)

Lead is the same as the asbestos racket. Scare tactics to make money.It is lawyers driving the lead and asbestos racket. Lead and asbestos are perfectly good materials.

Comment from Robert Ikenberry, (7/29/2014, 12:12 PM)

Warren: Thanks for a thoughtful and informative blog. Your comments do exactly what a good blog should do: make us step back, reflect, and address an issue we should consider, but often don't. In my experience, lead removal by owners is typically driven by one of two considerations, neither if which is necessarily technically sound. 1. Anticipation of future cost savings. Looking at the costs of removal, containment, monitoring and disposal, owners have seen removal costs for lead steadily rise over the past thirty years (although I'm not sure that has been the case for the past few years). They believe (or are told) that abatement will just get more expensive, as regulations tighten and disposal costs go up, so they should bite the bullet now and remove it all. 2.Liability. Since the owner now knows there is lead on their structure, they will potentially be liable for all kinds of future problems. When an unsophisticated contractor maintains the structure and exposes their workers or the public, when the paint flakes off and creates contamination on or around the site, when the next owner refuses to buy the structure unless the lead "hazard" is abated, etc. Often the "prudent" course of action appears to be; remove the lead and the risk. Your blog shows it's not the only option, and often isn't necessarily the best one.

Comment from Burt Olhiser, (7/29/2014, 12:15 PM)

On a recent bridge project that was built in the 30’s both the main cable saddles and the cable itself needed to be recoated. An assessment of the original 75 year old red lead coating (paste and paint)found that it was substantially intact. the upshot was that about 30% of it was removed and spot primed (with zinc) and the balance was overcoated. I fully expect that this system will last another 50 years as the lack of rusting on both galvanized wire cable and the steel saddles was remarkable as for all intents and purposes none was present. the debt we owe lead for preservation of our infrastructure is significnat in my experience and I agree 100% with you Warren that leaving it is always the first and best option.

Comment from Warren Brand, (7/29/2014, 6:15 PM)

Thank you all very much for taking the time to comment on my blog. I am always appreciative of comment, both pro and con. To answer Peter Rushen, the simplest response is that it was beyond our scope. A longer response is that when we conducted the proof of concept, an environmental consulting firm was on site and set up tarp system to capture the run off. My understanding is that, for the most part, lead is not soluble in water, particularly in this circumstance. The environmental firm gathered all the paint chips that came off (which were all non-lead topcoat) and the water. My understanding is that the water showed no signs of lead and so the water blaster contractors were given the go-ahead. There were dozens of people buzzing around this project. We were focusing on application and inspection. It's my understanding, however, that the environmental firm was on site taking random samples.

Comment from Tom Schwerdt, (7/30/2014, 9:10 AM)

Yes, red lead has a very low solubility in water. Add some hydrochloric acid (such as stomach acid) and the solubility goes up dramatically. Don't ingest paint with red lead ;) When the existing lead primer is in good shape, but the topcoat is problematic - water blast and overcoat (with containment) can be an excellent choice for long-term corrosion protection at a more reasonable price.

Comment from M. Halliwell, (7/30/2014, 11:37 AM)

Sorry to hijack the responses a bit, Warren. Peter, just like with lead, as long as the asbestos is in good shape and not friable, I'd agree that there is a certain fear factor driving folks to remove it. But... if there is any question about its integrity or potential to release fibres, then there is a legitimate health concern and the preferred option is removal. Having the attitude that asbestos removal is just a "racket" can be irresponsible and have deadly consequences (though not immediate consequences like H2S and falls).

Comment from Randy Gordon, (8/1/2014, 1:19 PM)

I like the word "Racket" =) Great read Warren.

Comment from Keith Gabbard, (8/1/2014, 4:26 PM)

From a practical standpoint, it can make since to leave some intact lead systems in place and just overcoat/encapsulate. As we all know, practical vs. OSHA / EPA Regs & enforcement policies are not always congruent. What makes leaving intact lead systems even more risky is the potential future OSHA / EPA Regs - I believe we all know that they will be evermore restrictive - even to the point that currently available instrument technologies are incapable of testing for the prescribed limits. Could it be that removing the lead now will be much less expensive in current dollars than the cost of being mandated to remove in future years? It is Brave New World - becoming more & more dominated/influenced by Regulations. Look at the bidding process today vs. even 10 years ago - the time & money devoted to Compliance of so many governing bodies is now a significant portion of the overall cost - and one that is only growing. So, as long as it's not my money, I say remove the lead now.

Comment from David Horrocks, (8/4/2014, 6:26 AM)

Great blog! Having been on both sides of the fence with this in terms of an ex blasting operative and years of managing this kind of work, I can see the plus side of leaving the lead intact but also the minus points of future maintenance issues. If I have to categorically choose to leave or not leave in place? I would have to go with not leave it in place, remove the lead and avoid future maintenance issues based on health and safety related risk factors. Not that's not to say I wouldn't cost evaluate the situation first as did the coal company based on advice contained in this blog, it made commercial sense to leave the lead in place and worry about the cost and removal for a later date, it works both ways however for me, I would like to think my kids who are in the twenties will reach 30-40 yrs old and not have to be worrying about blast cleaning lead off old structures, the stuff as a product is amazing, it's not been replaced as some have commented here yet it stinks when removing the stuff and is hazardous to health. It will take years to eradicate this, I would like to see what Mr Tristan Olivier thinks about this, he is the main UK lead guru and sure to add some interesting thought here.

Comment from David Lemke, (8/8/2014, 8:15 AM)

To be or not to be lead free is the question. I’m thinking the amount of time exposure to where former lead coatings have been applied and condition of that coating helps provide answers to the question. Lead coatings in places where consistent human contact is probably not a good idea. Unless you’re the homeless living under a bridge, what would be the harm in leaving a well intact lead coating attached when restoring a new coat of paint on a bridge? I am not an expert in the lead coating field but I have been faced with a similar situation as Warren. The job was to abrasive blast and recoat a 20 ton tug boat inside and out. The owner completely removed all operating equipment including the engine room. We started blasting the engine room first (after a good cleaning) which would entail removing the abrasive media (steel grit we planed on recycling) by hand. The blast operator, who was experienced in lead removal, stopped as soon as he saw the tell tale sign of lead in the orange dust that was being created from the blasting. After a lead swab test, it confirmed his belief. If we continued to remove the coating, it would have left us a lot of abrasive material that would have to be taken care through safety protocol. The coating was well intact the owner just wanted the engine room cleaned up. So we removed the small amount of abrasive media (following safety protocol) and then applied a sealer and a quality epoxy recommended by the coating manufacturer. Further testing of the rest of the boat showed no signs of lead. In this boat’s history the original coating probably had been removed and recoated. This was the first time someone had taken the effort to remove the engines and equipment down there to recoat. Even with safety lead removal procedures, sometimes there is no need to expose workers to this procedure and the added expense since engine rooms are not normally a place of consistent human occupancy. So in essence, I would agree with Warren, some cases it is best to leave the sleeping bear lie when that is a safe option.

Comment from Diego Santee, (3/29/2021, 7:40 AM)

I wanted to have new fences because the seal and paint job of the previous one is not that really good.

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