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Case Study: Lead Paint & Dust In Heritage Houses

By Robert Aurisch

As my family grew to four children, I knew the time had come to purchase a larger house to accommodate our needs. An opportunity arose to purchase my wife's Grandparents' house. At first I was reluctant as the house was over 100 years old and no maintenance had been completed on it. The house was on a large block of land (900 square meters) which appealed to me. My first impression was to demolish it and rebuild.

Aurisch 11.JPG (32382 bytes)We decided to rent the property before purchase so my wife's family could decide on a negotiable price for the house and land. I cleaned the house to a liveable standard, which took 4 weeks. During this time I noticed a large amount of dust in roof cavities, carpet and generally all over. The house had been painted externally which was flaking off the bricks. My wife, who is a nurse, became concerned about dust because one of our children had bad asthma and she asked me to remove the carpets. The internal paint was also flaking off so I decided to repaint the house before we moved in. There was a lot of effort needed to complete this task as all wall and ceiling surfaces were in poor condition. I sanded back and prepared the surfaces as best I could, knowing at some stage down the track, if we purchased the house, it needed to be completely renewed or the house demolished.

We finally settled with the family members in December 1996, for a price, on the condition that we accept the house the way it was. Knowing this I did not complete a building inspection survey before purchase, as I knew the purchase was only for land value. My wife appealed to me to keep the house, as it was part of her family heritage with her own father being born in the front bedroom. Reluctantly, I agreed to keep the old house. I knew it would cost a lot of money to fix so I took out an Owner Builder's license to keep the costs to a minimum. I considered my knowledge and experience of managing people and safety issues would get me by for handling contractors. I was a practical person who worked in the petrochemical and wastewater industries for many years. The demolishing of old buildings I could complete myself and then employ specific tradesmen to complete structural work.

The renovation needed to be completed in stages. The land was full of unauthorized buildings, such as old sheds, additions on to the house etc. This probably was a generally acceptable practice back in those days as there was no Council control. There was a large shed in the middle of the yard, which needed to be removed and a new one built. A major garage construction group presented an application to Council for a new garage and the demolishing of the old shed. They would complete the new garage with myself completing the demolition work. Because I needed a larger than normal storage space for materials during construction, the garage application was for a very large construction, (130 sq m plus a small workshop). The Council planners wanted a site inspection to ask questions on why I wanted it so big. On the day of the visit their interest turned towards the old house rather than the garage. Two weeks later I received a letter from the Council stating that the house, had significant value to the heritage of the community and would be placed under Heritage listings.

I started to wonder if I had made the right decision to purchase the house.

Eight weeks later I received approval for the new garage and the demolition of the house extensions. The major garage construction group completed the new garage and then I proceeded to demolish the old garage, which was made of tin and wood. Being a bit of a novice at demolishing I did the best I could to ensure that I kept the younger children away in case any fell on them. As far as I was aware, there were no direct instructions from the Council. During the demolition of the old garage, which presented many problems, I encountered a major dust problem. The dust was all over the yard until I started wetting it down. My wife started to question me again about the dust and told me to beware of the asthma problem.

The next stage of the construction was the house. I arranged many meetings with the Council and my draftsman on what I could do and could not do. The Council arranged a site visit with their Heritage architect consultant to finalize plans. Their focus was purely on construction and the final outcome of the restoration. Final plans were agreed to, which we expected to take a fair while to endorse.

It was agreed to keep the front section of the house, which consisted of:

  • 3 Bedrooms
  • Lounge room
  • Dining room

The rest would be demolished. The rooms to be kept were structurally sound but needed the following work completed:

  • All plaster walls removed and renewed
  • Restoration of ceilings
  • New floor boards
  • External paint removed

Aurisch 14.JPG (28441 bytes)Because the front section of the house restoration did not affect any structural part, I was free to proceed without Council permission. The only problem was it would be impossible to live in while the work took place. I made application to Council to live in a temporary dwelling [Caravan] while work took place. 3 weeks later approval was given. The only condition on the approval was it had to be finished in 3 months.

At this stage, I felt the stress of a high workload at work and home and I started looking for short cuts - something I promised myself I would not do.

I arranged a meeting with a sand blaster to remove the external paint. There were issues of the mortar being removed and dust issues. I was undecided and commenced the other work first. My wife naturally focussed on heath issues relating to my young children [Asthma] and made me aware not to allow them in the house while all the dust was around. I did this but the dust went out windows and doors to give some relief to me. The children played in the large backyard while I did the work. I worked 16 hrs a day in attempting to complete the work on time [8 hrs at work, 8 hrs at home]. I sometimes had lunch and tea made for me by my family members while working in the house and other times I just went to the caravan without changing my clothes.

 My wife continued to investigate heath-related issues with old houses, especially paint and dust. A month had passed and everything I thought was going OK. My family was living in abnormal conditions but the end result looked achievable. On a visit to our local doctor for my son's asthma problem, my wife told the doctor of our living conditions and how I was doing the work. My wife convinced the Doctor of the need for health surveillance during the renovation. After researching, the Doctor explained to my wife that the children must be kept away from the dust and from the paint, which could possibly be lead-based. He organized blood lead tests as he explained the serious effect it can have on children and adults.

My wife explained to me the situation and I organized a lead testing kit for the paint, which proved positive. I continued the work until one day I received a phone call from my wife at work in tears. The local Doctor had just advised her that the blood lead level in the younger children was borderline for going over the national goal.

The Doctor ordered the following immediate actions to commence:

  • At all costs keep the children away from the contaminated site.
  • Repeat blood lead testing every three weeks while work continues.
  • If the next blood lead results are not reducing then he ordered the children to be removed.
  • Improve my hygiene levels by removing shoes and clothing when entering the living areas after working on the site.
  • Clear the land surrounding the house which will be contaminated with lead dust
  • Clean dust out of all roof cavities in the house, before living back in the house.

My wife was extremely disappointed in me that I allowed this to happen and considered removing the children if I didnít complete the work to lead-safe standards that my wife had researched. My wife called The LEAD Group which is an organisation set up to build awareness of lead contamination and lead poisoning prevention. They run an information and referral service called the Lead Advisory Service Australia - which my wife rang several times for information.

This would have to go down as the lowest morale period of my life. I had seriously affected the health and safety of my children. I was looking for answers. I had only myself to blame.

I started to review all the work methods. The Lead Advisory Service Australia gave us safe working instructions for the removal of dust and lead based paint. I completed the work in the front of the house following the guidelines set down by the doctor and the Lead Advisory Service. It didnít occur to me to contact the Council, as they didnít supply any information to me on lead abatement during all the meetings I attended with them for the restoration of the house.

In all the mess with the children I didnít give myself a thought. The Doctor asked me to have a blood lead level test after I paid a visit to him after complaining of being completely run down and having no energy. Sure enough my levels were high and corrective action needed to be taken immediately. I just thought it was the stress of the situation.

After six months living like gypsies and under the stress created by the lead dust and paint we finally gained approval to complete the rest of the house by the Council. I had learnt valuable lessons on the way and wasnít about to make the same mistakes.

Aurisch 15.JPG (24388 bytes)Again there wasnít any mention of lead risk requirements by the Council but it didnít matter. I knew what I had to do. The front of the house was lead free. The back section needed to be demolished. I completed that job by removing the children from the site and applying safe working conditions set down by the Lead Advisory Service for myself and family.

The rest of the house was new and only required the appropriate tradesmen to complete the work. Finally most of the work was completed in 1998.

Our nightmare was over.

The house had proven to be a good investment for my family, however, I will never forget what happened, as it still plays on my mind. The results were:

  • Four bedrooms
  • Study or fifth bedroom
  • Large dining areas
  • Entertainment areas
  • New kitchen
  • New bathrooms and toilets
  • Landscaped gardens
  • Large garage and storage areas

All in the heritage look.
After 3 years living in the house and the children and myself having no repercussions from the lead dust/paint, I finally thought that these risks would never be encountered again. I even applied myself in learning occupational health and safety at university to gain more knowledge of health issues so I could apply them further in my job and home life.

However I was wrong. The Council had written [September 2000] to me about an application to demolish and rebuild the next door property asking whether I had any objections and, if so, can I put them in writing. This property was the same age as my property and it concerns me that no one had been living there for more than 10 years.

I explained to the Council in writing, that I did not object to the building, however, I expected the Council to apply a duty of care to the following:

  • To inform me when they were about to demolish so I can remove the children
  • appropriate standards for lead abatement and other issues of dust so as not to contaminate my lead free house.

The Council sent a letter back to me saying they have registered my concerns and that they are on file.

In February 2001 I received a phone called from my wife, saying that they are demolishing the old house next door and that there was air borne dust gathering inside and outside our house. We cleaned the dust up and talked to the contractor who immediately started wetting down the dust.

Our nightmare had returned.

Aurisch 2.JPG (31243 bytes)I considered ringing the Council but after what had happened in the past I thought it was too late after the event. To the Council's credit, they were always very willing to help with restoring the house. They are always safety and environment conscious, however, there are huge gaps in the system that need to be plugged. They are now promoting lead awareness but that is not enough. There needs to be a review of all systems and how they are linked together.

After 5 years of investigating Occupational Health & Safety standards on building sites and through University studies, I have listed problem areas that need to have controls placed on them. Quality systems must be introduced to all building sites to ensure the safety of all communities.

This is why I am writing this case study to promote awareness of the risks involved in lead dust and paint and other issues that may affect members of your family. I hope that other prospective buyers of Heritage houses or pre 1970 houses read this information so as to ensure their family's safety.



  • No building inspection survey by future owner.

  • If I completed a building inspection survey before purchase of the house, lead paint/dust could have been identified through Hazard Identification.

  • Recommendation
    That all houses for purchase require a completed building inspection survey which encompasses Hazard Identification.

  • Heritage planning

  • If Councils are committing communities to Heritage listings, then they should provide assistance on risk management to the owner.

  • Recommendation
    Compulsory risk assessments completed on heritage listed houses before any work is performed. The Council to provide free assistance through skilled personnel.
    This to be completed with input from all parties involved to ensure that all information is collated. Builders and labourers are to be made aware of the risk assessment prior to the work commencing.

  • A Project safety plan to be developed that delivers:
    * Hazard Identification
    * Control Measures
    * Safe Work Method statements
    * Competent trained personnel to complete the work

  • Issuing Owner Builder permits.

  • The ease of how I received an Owner Builders permit without training added to my mistakes.
    All Owner Builders should have adequate training.

  • Recommendation
    Compulsory competency based training to Owner Builders before they are issued permits.

  • Training to include:
    * Demolishing
    * What are the boundaries that apply to my work
    * Risk Assessments
    * Hazard Identification
    * Safe Work Method statements

  • Development approval

  • The development approvals listed acts and statutory requirements. However they were never explained to me.

  • Recommendation
    Councils to ensure that all Builders and Owner Builders have an initial meeting outlining their responsibilities during the project. This would be documented and signed off by both parties.

  • Education

  • All governments have a Duty of Care to:
    Home owners, Tenants, and Workers to provide information on environmental issues.

  • Recommendation
    Compulsory educational programs at schools, for doctors and elsewhere for home owners, tenants and workers targeting environmental issues. Building courses to teach Lead abatement.

  • Support

  • If my family didnít have the support by Medical staff and the Lead Advisory Service, my situation for my family could have had serious repercussions.

  • Recommendation
    Governments to continue to supply funding to The LEAD Group to enable the Lead Advisory Service to continue, and to medical research teams on environmental health effects on communities.

  • Legislation

  • Recommendation
    Governments to legislate to improve safety on building sites.

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Last Updated 26 August 2013
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