Aside from the occasional recall of imported toys and other products that contain lead-based paint, you probably don’t hear much about the dangers of lead in your home. Yet thousands of children every year suffer from lead poisoning, and other family members may also have dangerously heightened levels of lead in their blood. In many cases, the lead comes not from toys, but from inside the house itself!
Think your house is safe from lead issues? Read on to find out.
What Is Lead?
A soft, heavy metal found naturally in the earth’s crust, lead has been utilized for centuries. From the 1920s to 1978, lead was used extensively in American products such as gasoline, paint, pottery, plumbing supplies and even cosmetics. Growing awareness of the toxic effects of lead poisoning led industries to phase out lead contents, and in 1978 the U.S. government banned lead-based paints.
While federal and state regulations help reduce exposure to lead in outdoor environments, inside the home is a completely different story. Decades since the paint ban, many children are still living in homes containing lead paint. In fact, the American Academy of Pediatrics suggests that one in four children lives in a home that contains deteriorating lead paint.
Lead Toxicity and Symptoms
Lead is a particular concern for children for several reasons. Young, growing bodies absorb lead more rapidly than adults, and developing nervous systems react more strongly to the presence of lead. Not to mention, children are more likely to put their hands and other items in their mouths, and are more likely to be rolling around and playing in environments that may contain lead-filled dust.
A potent neurotoxin, lead not only damages the nervous system, it affects the kidneys as well. Even a small amount of lead-filled dust can raise blood levels and create symptoms such as irritability, hyperactivity, loss of appetite and clumsiness. The Environmental Protection Agency states that lead poisoning in children can cause:
- Learning or behavioral problems
- Delayed or slowed growth
- Lower IQ
- Hearing problems
- Seizures, coma or death in severe cases
Pregnant women and other adults are also at risk. Lead, the EPA explains, is stored in bones. Pregnant mothers with past exposure may actually release lead during pregnancy, much like calcium, which is then used to form bones in the developing baby. Lead crosses the placental barrier readily, so current exposure may also harm the baby, causing the risk of reduced fetal growth or premature birth. Even healthy, non-pregnant adults can suffer high blood pressure and other problems due to lead exposure.
Lead Exposure in the Home
Lead may be present virtually anywhere, and it doesn’t break down naturally. Dust, soil, drinking water, food or toys can be contaminated with lead. Still, as Colorado State University Extension points out, the greatest threat is from breathing or eating dust and paint flakes from lead-based paint.
About three-quarters of homes built before lead paint was banned in 1978 contain some amount of lead paint, and the older the building, the more likely it is present. Worse, the older the home, the more lead is likely in the paint, with homes built before 1950 containing higher levels of lead.
Lead-based paint was commonly used on exteriors, for interior wood, and on trim around doors and windows. When properly maintained, it poses little risk. But when paint begins to flake, chip, peel or grind against another surface, such as when opening a window or running your hand down a railing, over time a problem can begin. Lead-based paint chips and flakes are often visible, but sometimes form a fine dust that spreads through the air. The lead is now easily inhaled or ingested from contact with toys, food, countertops, unwashed hands, pacifiers and other household items.
How to Determine If Your Home Has Lead Paint
Of course, not all paint has lead in it. To find out if your home contains lead-based paint, try purchasing a do-it-yourself lead testing kit at a local paint or home improvement store. Alternatively, use a qualified lab to test samples with greater accuracy. Or contact a qualified risk-assessment professional for a whole-house analysis. Your local health department may be able to suggest further resources.
The presence of lead paint alone does not spell disaster. If your paint is in good repair, you may wish to simply leave it alone. Lead paint removal must be performed by a professional and can prove costly.
Avoiding Lead Exposure
Since the danger lies in disturbed paint, keeping paint in good shape helps reduce the risk of lead exposure. Never sand lead-based paint, to prevent creating toxic dust. Other measures to avoid lead exposure – from paint and other sources – include:
- Inspect all painted surfaces regularly. Repair painted surfaces that are in poor condition.
- Fix water damage quickly. Water-damaged paint peels and deteriorates easily.
- Clean floors and around window frames and sills at least once a week. Use a mixture of very warm water and trisodium phosphate (known as TSP) for best results. Wear gloves and keep one bucket for the cleaning solution and another for rinse water to avoid contamination.
- Dust regularly to lower possible contamination levels.
- Use cold water for food and drink preparation. Older pipes in particular may have high levels of lead.
- Wash hands constantly and ensure children do the same.
- Keep children’s toys and items clean.
- Serve meals that are nutritious and low in fat, with high iron and calcium content (think dairy, beans, eggs, spinach and lean beef). Children who eat well absorb less lead into their systems.
- Take off your shoes when you enter your home to avoid tracking in lead-contaminated soil.