When fire broke out under the roof of Notre-Dame de Paris Cathedral on April 15th, 2019, an unprecedented amount of lead gas was released into the air over the entire city of Paris.
When the 13th-century spire collapsed into the church, approximately 450 tons of lead quickly melted as fire temperatures reached 1,400° F. The yellow smoke it produced was vaporized lead that created toxic dust that coated homes and streets across the city.
By July 2019, random tests of dirt and dust samples showed that areas close to Notre Dame had lead levels 500-800 times official safe levels.
What It Takes To Vaporize Lead
Lead vapor is released as highly toxic lead oxide fumes when heated to temperatures above 932° F. This vapor condenses into solid fume particles (yellow smoke) that can get carried on winds for many miles before falling to the ground.
Lead oxide is highly soluble in body fluids. The particulates are small enough to be inhaled easily and then quickly absorbed into the bloodstream. Molten lead or lead fumes also contain other toxic chemicals such as chromium, cobalt, arsenic, selenium cadmium, antimony, and mercury. The Clean Air Act lists all of these as hazardous air pollutants.
Worth Noting: If removing paint in your home that may have lead content, use only heat guns designed for paint removal as they will not exceed 932° F.
Even Modern Homes Can Have Dangerous Levels Of Lead
You may think that because your home was built after 1978, when lead paint production was banned, that your house is not at risk of releasing lead toxins into the air should it catch fire. Unfortunately, that isn’t true.
Though the amount of lead vaporized in the Notre Dame fire was exceptional, homes built in Virginia and across the U.S. have many lead-based products that can make fire restoration hazardous to unprotected restoration workers.
For example, even though the federal government banned the manufacture of lead-based paint in 1978, it remained on the market until stockpiles were exhausted. According to the EPA, here is the breakdown of homes with lead paint:
87% of homes built before 1940
69% of homes built between 1940 and 1960
24% of homes built between 1960 and 1978
Another 7% of homes built after 1978 also have some lead paint.
Paint Isn’t The Only Lead Source
Paint isn’t the only source of lead contamination in a home. Here are just some construction-based and everyday items in your house that may contain lead. Note that these should be viewed as categories only. Lead may not be found in every iteration of these items. Check any available labels for content and country of origin. If no label exists, you can test them for lead before deciding to keep or throw them away.
Piping and solder
Colorant for plastics and ceramic glazes (most white tile uses white lead II carbonate)
Plastics food or liquid containers
Toys and jewelry made in other countries
Antique toys and jewelry (particularly metal Hotwheels cars, metal legos, and Thomas The Tank Engine Toys)
Glazed Pottery (the kind labeled for decoration use ONLY)
Imported vinyl plastic mini-blinds made before 1997
Imported metal furniture (particularly from Mexico and China)
Imported painted dinnerware (China, Mexico, Africa, & South America in particular).
How To Test Your Items For Lead
Color Change Tests or Swab Tests are available at many hardware and home repair stores as kits. They rely on a color change to determine the presence or absence of lead. They are the least expensive type of lead test and you can get results in a matter of minutes.
The process is simple. By rubbing an applicator on the surface to be tested, you can determine if lead is present if color appears following a set amount of time. It is like a PH test of water but of a particular element instead.
There are two shortcomings with these tests, however. First, no color change may occur if an object has an overcoating or if the lead is embedded within a plastic. Second, if the amount of lead is 600 ppm (parts per million), you could get no color or a false positive.
If you test an object with one of these kits, wash it thoroughly to remove any chemical residue.
You may want to go the professional route if an item is valuable to you. Testing Labs typically use x-ray fluorescence (XRF) technology to test for lead. Hiring a pro to come to your home might cost between $350 and $600. Google XRF Labs Near Me and call different labs to see what specific services they offer.
In Case Of Fire
If you have a fire at your home and you know you have lead paint or other items with lead content, be sure to notify the fire department and any restoration personnel so they can take the proper precautions to protect themselves.
Sources: Tri-Tech Testing, NU Property Casualty 360°, Traditional Building, University of Texas at El Paso, MMDHD.org,