How to Identify Lead Paint Hazards

Most homes built before 1950 have lead paint. After 1950, the use of lead in paint declined; but many homes built until 1978 still had some lead paint. Lead paint is most likely to be hazardous when it is deteriorating (chipping, flaking, or chalking) or when maintenance or remodeling work creates lead dust or debris.

Various lead paint inspection services are available to identify lead paint or to evaluate lead paint hazards. You may obtain a list of accredited inspection contractors from the Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE). You may do some limited testing yourself, but information provided by a trained and accredited inspector will generally be more complete and definitive.

A complete survey is performed to determine the presence and location of lead paint hazards in a home or other building. Such a survey includes sampling of all painted surfaces on the interior and the exterior of the building. Neither a single paint chip sample nor a composite sample of several different areas within a building can give an accurate picture of the extent or location of lead paint hazards. A lead paint survey may be of particular use if you are planning repainting or remodeling activities that may disturb painted surfaces in your home.

A risk assessment will provide an evaluation of potential sources of lead exposure in a home. The condition of the paint should be noted because dust from peeling, chipping or chalking paint is the most common source of lead exposure in young children. Repainting, maintenance and other home improvement activities should also be considered by the risk assessor. While lead paint continues to be the most important source of high level lead exposures, a full risk assessment may include other sources, such as water, food and parental occupation.

A lead hazard screen, conducted by a risk assessor, determines whether a home that is in good condition has potential lead hazards.

Please see the fact sheet on "Abatement of Lead Paint Hazards" for more information about possible exposures to lead paint. Please also see the fact sheet about "Inspections for Rental Housing" if you own or manage rental property. 

When is a lead inspection necessary?

  • when a child has been identified as being lead-poisoned.
  • when a property owner is concerned that a lead hazard exists and wishes to abate that hazard.
  • when a property owner is required to test for lead in order to be in compliance with Maryland standards for rental housing.
  • when a group day care center which may have lead paint is reviewed for licensing or plans renovations which may disturb lead paint.
  • when, under federal law, a homebuyer desires to hire an inspector prior to purchasing a home constructed before 1978

Who can perform an inspection?

  • accredited testing companies
  • some local health departments or environmental departments
  • the Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE)
    (NOTE: Most government agencies have limited resources and are able to inspect homes of lead-poisoned children only)

What types of analysis are used to test for lead?

  • laboratory analysis of paint scrapings
  • portable XRF (x-ray florescence) analyzer
  • chemical spot test, using a test kit
    (NOTE: Each method has specific limitations. See the section on Advantages and Disadvantages later in this fact sheet)

Can I check for lead myself?

Yes. With direction from a laboratory, you can collect paint scrapings from areas of your home which you would like to test. Take (or mail) your samples to the laboratory.

You may also use a chemical spot test kit for lead paint. Several paint stores now sell such kits. Follow kit directions carefully. See page 4 of this fact sheet for advantages and disadvantages of these tests.

For a complete survey or risk assessment of a home, you should hire an experienced professional testing company. Contact individual firms to determine specific services provided and costs for these services. Due to differences in services provided, as well as technical operations, there may be a wide variation in prices. We recommend you call at least 3 organizations to compare prices and services before you contract for testing services.

Is the company currently accredited by the State of Maryland as a lead paint inspection contractor?

  • What will be the scope of work? Should I have a survey, a risk assessment, or a more limited inspection?
  • What is the cost of a complete survey?
  • What methods are used for analysis?
  • What previous experience has the company had?
  • Has the person who will perform the actual inspection been accredited by the State of Maryland as an inspector technician or as a risk assessor?
  • How will the information be reported to you? How can I use this information? 


The following levels of lead content in paint or other coating material exceed regulatory standards:

Laboratory Results:

  • Paint containing lead levels of 0.5% or more by weight in dried solid (also reported as 5000 milligrams per kilogram) is considered to be lead paint according to both Federal and Maryland State Regulations.
  • Lead levels greater than 0.06% by weight in dried solid exceed U.S. Consumer Product Safety standards for lead in paint manufactured after 1977 for residential structures, furniture (except major appliances), toys and other non-industrial applications.

Portable XRF Results:

  • Paint containing lead levels of more than 0.7 milligrams per square centimeter is considered to be lead paint according to Maryland State Regulations. For some types of equipment, a reading at or near the regulatory limit should be confirmed with laboratory analysis of a paint sample.

Chemical Spot Tests:

  • Sodium sulfide: The appearance of a color ranging from yellow to dark brown indicates that a high level of lead is likely to be present.
  • Other test kits: Color change as specified in test kit directions indicates the likely presence of lead paint.


 Methods  Advantages  Disadvantages
Paint Scrapings

1. Analyzed in laboratory

2. Results are usually very accurate

3. Results reflect lower, as well as upper layers of paint

1. Lengthy processing time in laboratory

2. 30 to 70 samples usually needed for a home

3. Lab costs can be high

4. Quantitative results can be "watered down" if there are many paint layers

5. Destructive to painted surfaces

6. Collection of samples can be difficult, time-consuming work

Portable XRF

1. Performed on site

2. Less destructive to painted surfaces

3. Results are available as soon as after inspection

1. Equipment is expensive

2. Operator must be trained and have extensive experience with the equipment

Chemical Spot Tests

1. Quick on-site results. Can be used as a screening test.

2. Inexpensive

3. Test kits available at some paint or hardware stores

1. Other metals in paint may cause false positive readings.

2. May be difficult to use with colored paint.

3. May fail to detect lead in bottom layers of paint.

4. Some surface destruction necessary.

5. Cannot measure the amount of lead present.

6. Results are not recognized under Maryland regulations.

*This is the second in a series of seven Fact Sheets providing guidance consistent with Maryland Lead Paint Abatement Regulations (COMAR 26.02.07) and Departmental Policies.​​​

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