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Thinking long-term lead encapsulation vs. removal

Thinking long-term lead encapsulation vs. removal

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Thinking long-term about lead encapsulation vs. removal
The advantages of lead-based paints as an industrial coating have long outweighed the environmental and human health hazards that come with them.
But these coatings don’t last forever.
When managers and asset owners develop maintenance programs, they confront the reality that lead is harmful and are left weighing competing lead abatement 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, take the long view: One option is much like merely treating an illness while the other is akin to curing it.
Temporary lead encapsulation
Covering up or containing a surface coated in lead-based paint 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 a surface 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. If you plan to overcoat a surface, have it thoroughly inspected for defects first.
The same is the case for using adhesive barriers. They won’t work as designed unless the lead-based coating is firmly stuck to its substrate.
If lead-based coatings are in poor condition, isolating the asset surface by walling it off can be effective. But this method takes up 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 multiple 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 people, plants, animals and water sources. While ultra high pressure water jetting reduces the amount of solid waste produced, environmental and safety precautions are still required.
Chemical stripping of lead also requires added care because improper use or 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. Taxpayers are on the hook for lead abatement jobs on public assets, the bulk of them being bridges. It may be difficult to scratch together the funding needed for total hazard removal. But governments are also 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.
Over the long term, removal is the better option. 
Evaluate your assets and choose your contractor wisely
Before any lead abatement project is started, a field evaluation of assets coated in lead-based paints is crucial. These evaluations provide guidance for asset owners when determining the best, most efficient and safest method of lead hazard abatement.
The next step is finding the right lead abatement contractor. Safety must always be the priority. Make sure the contractor you choose employs technicians who are properly certified for lead abatement according to general industry and maritime standards as well as construction standards.
Deciding between lead encapsulation and lead removal can be difficult, and no one has an unlimited budget. But the safety of workers, the environment and the public is at stake. Tackling the problem head-on now will save you from big problems later.
Asset owners and managers dealing with lead hazards are caught between settling for cheaper temporary abatement via encapsulation or investing in permanent —and more costly— hazard removal. This article makes the case for securing a safer future for workers, the public and the environment by opting for permanent lead hazard removal.
About the author
Dane McGraw is the Director of Business Development and has over 11 years of industrial coatings and lead abatement experience. In addition to being SSPC C-3 certified, he has various State lead supervisor licenses. Dane is responsible for the business development team tasked with obtaining new accounts, estimating projects and supporting operations through to completion. He specializes in coordinating private industry and large scale transportation projects throughout the continental U.S. Additionally, Dane supports the inland marine, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and Department of Defense markets.


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