More than half of Maine homes contain lead paint. Lead-based paint is most common in houses built before 1978, and especially in homes built before 1950, when paint contained up to 50 percent lead.

According to the Royal Society of Chemistry, lead-based paint relies on lead compounds for its color. White lead, or lead(II) carbonate (PbCO3), is a typical example, and was once widely used to paint wooden surfaces in homes. Other lead compounds, like vivid yellow lead chromate (PbCrO4), were used as colored pigments.

As well as giving the paint its tint, lead pigments are highly opaque, so that a relatively small amount of the compound can cover a large area. Additionally, white lead is very insoluble in water, making the paint highly water-resistant with a durable, washable finish. However, the benefits of lead-based paint are overshadowed by the health and environmental hazards.

Lead cannot be seen by the naked eye and it has no smell and no taste. Damage from lead poisoning usually occurs over a period of months or years. Adults and children can get lead in their bodies if they breathe in lead dust (especially during activities such as renovations and repairs) or swallow lead dust that has settled on food and/or food preparation surfaces.

Babies and children under the age of 6 are more at risk for lead poisoning as they often put their hands and other objects in their mouths — these objects can have lead dust on them. At this age, children’s growing bodies absorb more lead and their brains and nervous systems are more sensitive to the damaging effects of lead.

Lead can affect the body in many ways. In adults, exposure to lead can cause harm to a developing fetus, fertility problems, high blood pressure, digestive problems, nerve disorders, memory and concentration problems and muscle and joint pain. In children, exposure to lead can cause nervous system and kidney damage, learning disabilities, speech, language and behavior problems, poor muscle coordination, decreased muscle and bone growth and hearing damage.

Three different approaches for testing lead are available: A lead-based paint inspection, a risk assessment, and a lead hazard screen. A lead-based paint inspection is a surface-by-surface, interior and exterior, investigation to determine whether there is lead-based paint in the home and where it is located. An inspection may be particularly useful before renovation, repainting, or paint-removal.

A risk assessment determines the presence, type, severity, and location of lead-based paint hazards. A risk assessment includes: a visual inspection to determine the location of deteriorated paint, the extent and causes of the deterioration, and other factors that may cause lead exposure, and testing household dust from floors and windows.

A lead hazard screen is a limited version of a risk assessment for houses with a low chance of lead-risks. Painted surfaces in a deteriorated condition are tested, along with two sets of dust samples. The outcome of the lead hazard screen is either a conclusion that lead-based paint hazards are probably not present or a recommendation that a full risk assessment be conducted to determine if hazards are present.

To make lower-income homes and apartments in Maine lead safe, MaineHousing’s Lead Hazard Control Program provides 0 percent deferred, forgivable loans (interest free with no monthly payments) to landlords and offers grants to single-family households or apartments in need of lead-based paint mitigation. The program provides up to $16,000 to eligible owner occupied single-family homeowners, and up to $10,000 per unit with a 10-unit maximum per landlord for lead safety improvements. Eligibility is based on area median income and whether children under age 6 are living in the home.

To ensure the work is done safely, reliably, and effectively have certified lead-based paint professionals do the work. And, if you’re considering buying, selling or investing in real estate, consult with your trusted, expert Realtor to learn more about the lead paint disclosure requirements involved in a real estate transaction.

This column is produced by Rick Bisson and his family, who own Bisson Real Estate with Keller Williams Realty of Midcoast and Sugarloaf. They can be reached at: [email protected]