How Can I Fix Mold and Lead Paint Issues in My House on a Small Budget?

Both problems pose significant health risks, but many people grappling with them can’t afford major renovations—and can’t move out. NRDC attorney Albert Huang shows us the range of solutions to consider.

Black mold is visible on the wall and ceiling paint in an upper corner of a room

Demetrius Freeman

Q: How do you address toxic black mold and lead paint in your home without spending money?

A: The problems of mold and lead paint can be as small as a musty-smelling attic or as big as a condemned house. But both pose serious health risks—especially if you don’t have a lot of money to spend on renovation. You’re wise to seek out solutions to the two issues early on, before they get out of control.

First up: Everyone’s least favorite houseguest, mold.

“Black mold” is actually a commercial term. There’s no specific deadly black mold, thankfully, but all mold is bad news, especially if you or your family suffer from respiratory illness. The first thing to know about controlling mold is that you must keep things dry. Mold spores thrive in moist conditions, which is why bathrooms with poor ventilation are common problem areas. When you see mold on your walls or ceiling (often as clusters of small black spots), scrub it off with a little laundry detergent and warm water. Once the area has dried, mix a solution of bleach and water (about 1 part bleach to 10 parts water) and scrub again. Allow to dry and apply again, if any spots remains. Be aware that cleaning with bleach can be dangerous for people who have respiratory illnesses, the elderly, and kids. If you do choose to clean with bleach, make sure your work space is well ventilated, wear protective gear, and avoid direct contact with the bleach.

Albert Huang, an NRDC attorney on a recent case suing the New York City Housing Authority over persistent mold issues in its buildings, has a few tips if your problems are more severe:

  1. If the mold exists in your drywall, as it often does after something major like a flood, you can remove the source of the spores by stripping everything that’s porous down to the studs, and then replacing and repainting. This, as you can imagine, is expensive and perhaps necessary only if the mold is widespread.
  2. You can attack the problem of moisture by running a dehumidifier and by making sure to keep the affected area well ventilated.
  3. If you have a recurring mold problem, you’ll want to eliminate the underlying source of the moisture that’s causing it. Often the moisture comes from leaking pipes, roofing, or air conditioners; it can also be the result of condensation on uninsulated pipes, which can be corrected by properly insulating them. If you eliminate the source of the moisture, you can begin the process of cleaning up the mold.

It’s often difficult to address the external source of a mold problem, be it a lack of ventilation or, say, an overtaxed sewer main that backs up into a basement (a problem in places that face persistent stormwater flooding). But you can learn the warning signs that indicate a problem under your roof. Musty-smelling rooms are a telltale sign of mold. Beyond dark spots on the walls, crumbling or bubbling paint is also a tip-off. And by the time you have actual water intrusion (pooling, dripping), you can nearly guarantee mold is growing.

A man uses a shovel to scrape debris off of a bare floor in a painted room

Brent Davis cleans out a home heavily damaged by Hurricane Matthew floodwaters in Nichols, South Carolina, as toxic black mold grew rampant.


Mike Spencer/AP/REX/Shutterstock

Lead is another public health plague that can lurk in some older homes.

Before we knew how bad lead exposure was for our health, we put it in our paint—its compounds made the paint durable and water-resistant. Because the EPA didn’t ban the use of lead-based paint in housing until 1978, apartments and homes built through the 1970s are likely to still contain at least some traces of it. If you do live in an older house and the paint is deteriorating (i.e., chipping off your walls), you’ll want to purchase an EPA-recognized lead-paint test kit, available at hardware stores. One way to remediate a lead problem is to strip the walls, but this comes with challenges. Air quality is already a problem during renovation work, and the issue is exacerbated when the construction dust contains lead (to control the spread of dust, the EPA suggests you wear disposable protective clothing and shoe covers, and advises use of a HEPA vacuum to run over clothing and the soles of shoes upon leaving the work area). A simpler and effective solution is to cover any peeling or chipping areas with a lead-encapsulating paint or primer, which is applied to the offending surface and then covered with a top coat. You’ll want to pay extra attention to areas around door hinges, knobs, and wherever else there is regular movement and flaking, making sure those spots are painted over regularly.

An important note: Children are at a much higher risk of toxic lead exposure and could face irreversible health impacts, like impaired neurological development, if they ingest contaminated paint chips or inhale its dust. If your little one has had prolonged lead exposure, seek the medical care of a doctor. The same goes for mold exposure, especially if your child suffers from asthma. If you can afford to tackle these issues in only one area of your home, prioritize your child’s room.

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