Reader Question: Refinishing Floor in an Old House
We have an old home from 1908 that is part of an old army base. There are 3 floors. The wood floors on the first two floors were replaced, but the third floor planks and varnish are distinctly different and, I believe, original. Before our first baby came, I had the house tested for lead-based paint. There are underlayers of lead-based paint on nearly every surface, encapsulated by multiple layers of newer, latex based paint. I have assumed these surfaces are safe as long as they are not chipping. All of the wipe tests are negative in the house, except for the third floor floors. I believe there is an old varnish on those floors that contains a component of lead.
How can we safely refinish these floors? I would like to do an encapsulation method, but is there any encapsulation product that is a clear varnish instead of an opaque paint? And is there any safe method of prep for these floors? I know sanding and powerwashing are out. Will just a good mopping, followed by a thick coat of polyurethane be enough or will the polyurethane react with the underlying varnish to make the problem worse?
It’s great that you have had your home tested for lead, as it was built before 1978 when lead was banned in household paints. Hardwood floor varnish often gets overlooked as a potential source of lead in the home (lead-based paints tend to garner the most attention).
No laws, guidance or strategy documents specific to handling leaded-varnish have been identified to answer your question. However, there are many resources available on lead-based paint that can be appropriately extrapolated to advise you in this instance, given that varnish and paint share similar properties and appear in the same types of coating applications in the home. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) provide advice, guidance, and mandates (in the case of public housing) for remediation strategies against leaded paint in their thorough reference documents Lead in Your Home: A Parent’s Reference Guide, and Guidelines for the Evaluation and Control of Lead-Based Paint Hazards in Housing, respectively.
There are four abatement methods cited by the EPA for “permanently” (defined by HUD as lasting 20 years) ridding a house of lead-based paint hazards: replacement, enclosure, encapsulation, and paint removal. Replacement entails removing whole parts of buildings (ie: window panes, doors) that are covered in lead-based materials and replacing them with new parts. Enclosure entails covering lead-based surfaces with solid barriers. Encapsulation, as you’ve described having completed in the first two floors of your home, entails coating lead-based surfaces with other materials that make the leaded area inaccessible. And finally, paint removal involves stripping, scraping, or blasting off paint layers from otherwise non-leaded surfaces. Encapsulation is a very simple, cost-effective method for protecting yourself and your family from lead-based paints on certain surfaces deemed suitable for this type of remediation strategy. However, HUD, EPA, and numerous state health departments, including the New York State Health Department, strictly advise against encapsulating surfaces that are high friction, such as flooring which is clearly an extremely high-friction, high-profile, and high-use area of any home. Unfortunately, materials used to encapsulate are often not wear-resistant enough to permanently protect against lead release from these high-friction surfaces, and therefore enclosure or complete removal and replacement of the hardwood floors might be better suited to address your concern.
Enclosure, like encapsulation, works by covering lead-containing surfaces, but employs more durable barrier materials such as aluminum, vinyl, tile, or drywall (among others) to keep leaded areas inaccessible to occupants. Proper enclosure prevents the release of lead chips or dust that can be hazardously inhaled or ingested, especially by children who exhibit behaviors that make them more susceptible to chip and dust contact (crawling, high hand-to-mouth contact frequency) and more vulnerable to the health effects of lead exposures during sensitive periods of development. Removal of the varnished hardwood planks and installation of non-leaded flooring materials would also be an appropriate means of mitigating the potential for lead exposure.
Regardless of how you decide to move forward with home improvement and lead remediation strategies, please be sure to reference the HUD and EPA guidance documents mentioned above (and cited below) to ensure that you undertake these projects with the appropriate safety precautions. In the meantime, interim controls, like regular cleaning of the floors, will help prevent lead dust accumulation and will allow you to remain aware of any deterioration or chipping of the floors which could increase opportunities for lead exposure to your family.