Lead is a metallic element found in rocks and soil virtually everywhere in the world. Tiny lead particles can be toxic if individuals inhale or swallow them. Over time, those inhaled or ingested lead particles may accumulate in blood, bones and soft tissue. The lead can cause permanent damage to the central nervous system, kidneys, brain, and red blood cells. This is lead poisoning, which can ultimately lead to death.
Infants and small children are particularly vulnerable to the effects of lead poisoning. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reports that lead can harm children more readily for three reasons.
First, “babies and young children often put their hands and other objects in their mouths. These objects can have lead dust on them.” Additionally, “children’s growing bodies absorb more lead,” according to the EPA, and “children’s brains and nervous systems are more sensitive to the damaging effects of lead.”
Lead-Based Paint Dangers
Lead-based paint is one of the biggest sources of lead poisoning. “The federal government banned lead-based paint from housing in 1978,” reports the EPA, while “some states stopped its use even earlier.” While lead’s toxic effects were understood early in the 20th century, it took decades before it was phased out of use in the United States.
Lead-based paint in good condition typically doesn’t pose a risk. Trouble arises when the paint ages and chips or flakes. Small children might eat those paint chips and run the risk of lead poisoning.
Also, if lead-based paint is scraped, sanded, or heated with an open flame (as it would be in the process of paint stripping for the purpose of renovating or remodeling), then lead particles can become airborne and inhaled. Just as bad, those particles can land in carpet fibers and fabrics where they can gradually recirculate.
Be particularly mindful about using a vacuum to clean up paint chips; lead can penetrate your vacuum’s filter system and recirculate through the air exhaust stream.
Government Efforts to Reduce Lead Exposure
Fortunately, the government has come to understand the potential dangers of lead-based paint. By 1960, lead-based paint was used in only one-third of all American homes. By 1977, the United States government banned lead in many household products as part of its Lead-Based Poisoning Prevention Act. Since then, federal and state agencies, including the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), and the EPA have taken additional steps to get lead out of paints, drinking water, automotive fuel, and other products and to minimize the dangers to people living with lead in older homes.
The EPA passed a rule in April of 2010 requiring renovators of 1978 and older homes to obtain training (for individuals) or certification (for firms) for “lead-safe work practices.” Renovators aren’t the only people with a legal responsibility to help prevent lead exposure:
- Landlords must share lead-based paint information with potential tenants of structures built before 1978. They must disclose “known information” about lead in the building prior to leases becoming effective.
- Sellers of 1978 and older homes are required to include a disclosure of lead-based paint hazards on sales contracts and to disclose “known information.”
- Buyers of 1978 and older homes are entitled to have a check for lead performed within 10 days of being notified of the potential for exposure.
A pamphlet detailing some ways to minimize lead exposure in the home is available from the EPA. For more EPA recommendations, you can call 1-800-424-LEAD.
Testing for Lead-Based Paint
If you have reason to suspect lead-based paint is in your home, have it tested by a qualified laboratory. Contact local, county or state health and environmental services for information or referrals to certified testing laboratories. Home testing kits can be unreliable, but the government works hard to make testing affordable and accessible to residents of older homes. A booklet about how to test for lead is available from the EPA.
Lead Paint Removal
If you have lead paint in your home, and if it’s peeling, chipping or excessively aged, have it removed immediately (if it’s still in good condition, it’s probably still harmless). Lead paint removal can be a costly and time-consuming process, but you might have to endure much dearer costs by leaving it alone and exposing yourself and your family to its very real dangers.
Call on a qualified, experienced professional to handle your lead paint removal. If you insist on doing it yourself, consider these important tips:
- First, conduct all testing for lead-based paint thoroughly and accurately.
- Be sure you meet the EPA’s requirements for training before you begin.
- Move your family (pets, too) off the premises for the entire procedure. Do not move back home until the job is finished and the area is cleared.
- Make sure any pregnant (or soon to be pregnant) women are out of the house long before you start the paint removal process.
- Do not use belt sanders, propane torches, heat guns or dry sandpaper. These tools will spread lead particles into the air, creating an inhalation risk.
- Note that lead dust can remain in the air and throughout your house long after the procedure is completed.
If your paint is still in good (intact) condition, you may be able to eliminate any potential dangers by covering it with wallpaper or simply repainting the surface with safe (non-lead) paint. Another alternative is to install a layer of wallboard over the surfaces painted with lead-based paint. Consult with a qualified professional for evaluation or paint removal.
The long-term danger of exposing growing children to lead is very real, but avoidable. With care, you can protect yourself and your family from lead by having your home tested for lead-based paint if it was built before 1978, undertaking any renovations only after obtaining EPA-certified training, and using trained professionals for lead-paint removal. If you think there’s been lead-based dust or chipping paint in your home, have a blood test performed on any vulnerable family members. Therapies are available to help patients with acute lead poisoning, but the safest thing to do is avoid exposure in the first place by making the home safe.