The advantages of lead-based paints as an industrial coating have long outweighed the environmental and human health hazards that come with them. Unfortunately, these coatings don’t last forever. 

When managers and asset owners develop maintenance programs, they confront the reality that lead is harmful and needs to be dealt with. They’re left weighing competing options. Either encapsulate the lead —a quick, relatively cheap fix but one that’s only temporary— or get rid of it entirely, which requires added expertise and a hefty up-front investment.

When deciding between the alternatives, it’s wise to take the long view, understanding that one option is much like treating a disease while the other is akin to curing it.

Temporary lead encapsulation

Lead encapsulation refers to covering up or containing a surface coated in lead-based paint. Encapsulation is generally safer for workers to complete than removal, is less costly and requires less downtime. Lead encapsulation methods include:

  • Sealing in the lead hazard by using encapsulation paint
  • Attaching adhesive barriers to the surface of an asset coated in lead-based paint
  • Isolating the lead hazard by building a structure around it

Each method is theoretically effective, but practical challenges immediately arise.

For instance, applying overcoats of encapsulation paint will only work if the underlying lead-based coating is in good condition. Overcoats are useless if the paint they cover chips and peels away from substrates.

The same is the case for using adhesive barriers—they won’t work as designed unless the lead-based coating is firmly stuck to the surface it covers.

If lead-based coatings are in poor condition, isolating the asset surface by walling it off can be effective. But this method also requires more space than the others. Building a wall around assets or surfaces in close quarters may not be practical because it could disrupt workflows or processes.

Also, remember that lead encapsulation is a temporary fix. Even coats of encapsulation paint only last a few years. The costs of constant assessments and recoats add up. Hard barriers and built structures also won’t last forever. At some point, a lead hazard must be permanently addressed. 

Permanent lead removal

The ideal way to combat lead hazards is to eliminate them completely. While lead removal is more costly and subject to greater government regulation, it is a permanent solution that eliminates the possibility that people or the environment will be impacted by lead hazards. 

Removal methods include:

  • Blasting a surface with sand or other abrasive materials
  • Blasting a surface using ultra high-pressure water jetting
  • Removing coatings with chemical paint strippers

Greater expertise and more safety measures are required for removal compared to encapsulation. For instance, sealed environments must be constructed before abrasives or water are used to blast lead-based paint away from a substrate. These containments prevent lead dust from dispersing into the environment, where it can harm plants, animals, people and water sources. While ultra high-pressure water jetting reduces the amount of solid waste, environmental and safety precautions are still required. 

Chemical stripping of lead also requires added care because improper use and disposal of the products could cause lead hazards to spread. 

While some asset owners may be skittish about the large up-front investment lead removal requires, long-term cost analyses show that a one-time removal of lead hazards is cheaper over time than continuous encapsulation.

That’s especially critical when governments are the asset owners. For one thing, taxpayers are on the hook when it comes to the cost of mitigating lead hazards. For another, governments are responsible for ensuring the public safety. They must consider whether lead encapsulation or removal is the right way to spend tax dollars wisely while also keeping citizens safe.

Get a field evaluation

Before any lead abatement project is started, a field evaluation of assets coated in lead-based paints is necessary. These evaluations provide guidance for asset owners when determining the best, most efficient and safest method of lead hazard abatement.

Specialists at Thomas Industrial Coatings work alongside asset owners and governments at every step of the process, performing field evaluations, recommending lead encapsulation or removal strategies and performing abatement. Safety is always the priority. These experts are properly certified according to general industry and maritime standards as well as construction standards.

Deciding between lead encapsulation and lead removal can be difficult, especially when the safety of workers, the environment and the public is at stake. Trusting Thomas Industrial Coatings with your lead abatement project ensures the job will be done by highly-trained technicians who don’t cut corners. You can get additional information about lead abatement by reading the asset owner's lead abatement handbook below.

 

Thinking long-term about lead encapsulation vs. removal
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