If your house was built before 1960, chances are its paint contains high levels of lead. If the house was built after 1980, it's unlikely the interior paint has lead, but it could have it on the exterior. If the home was built after 1992, you probably have nothing to worry about.
But Health Canada is still concerned about the use of lead and mercury, not only in house paint, but on furniture and toys. Last summer, the agency warned parents to discard children's metal jewelry obtained from vending machines, because it has high levels of lead. There's also lead in some horizontal mini-blinds made of PVC, which are imported from Asia and Mexico. Health Canada says if you have children six years of age or younger, these blinds should be removed from the home.
The regulations announced this month set "lower acceptable levels for lead and mercury in paints, enamels, varnishes, lacquers, or similar materials that dry to a solid film on the application surface," says the federal agency. The regulations do not apply to stains and sealants that are absorbed into the surface.
Lead poisoning can cause anemia. It can also damage the brain and nervous system, causing learning disabilities. Health Canada says risks are greater for children because their growing bodies absorb lead more easily. Unborn children can also be at risk if the mother is exposed to lead.
Additionally, mercury poisoning can cause a decrease in intelligence, delays in walking and talking, lack of coordination, blindness and seizures.
Canada has been limiting the amount of lead in paint since 1976, but the new regulations match those already in place in the U.S., reducing the lead content limit from 5000 mg/kg (0.5 percent by weight) to 600 mg/kg (0.06 percent by weight). It applies to any surface coating materials to which children or pregnant women may be exposed, as well as to furniture, toys, pencils and artist's brushes. The mercury content limit is 10 mg/kg (0.001 percent by weight) for all surface materials.
Health Canada says most Canadian paint and coatings manufacturers are already producing paint within these limits, but now the limits will apply to all surface coating materials advertised, sold or imported in Canada.
If you're living in an older home that you suspect has lead-based paint, removing it may not be the best idea. If the paint is out of the reach of children and it's not peeling or chipping, leave it alone. It can also be covered with vinyl wallpaper or paneling.
If the paint is chipping or flaking, or within the reach of children, Health Canada recommends having it removed.
If you're not sure if the house has lead paint, testing kits are available at hardware stores. You can also send paint chips to a lab that will analyze it for lead content, and some independent contractors have equipment that can determine if the paint contains lead.
Health Canada says it's best to hire a company that specializes in removing lead paint. But if you decide to do it yourself, "it is not safe to use sanders, heat guns or blowlamps to remove lead-based paint," says the agency. "These methods are counter-productive because they create dust and fumes that contain lead."
The paint should be removed with a chemical paste paint stripper, applied with a brush. It's important to make sure none of the paint scrapings or stripper gets on the walls or floor, or on furniture or your clothes, where it could be transported to other parts of the house. Proper ventilation and use of safety equipment is essential.
Health Canada provides more information about paint removal and other links at its website.