Lead contamination: how you get it and how to avoid it

  • Lead contamination: how you get it and how to avoid it

    Iris Price | Improvement Center Columnist | April 20, 2016

    Caution sign for lead hazardIf you were born in the late '70s or after, you may not have had any reason to think about lead contamination until the events in Flint, Mich. brought it to your attention. Lead has been found in that city's drinking water at levels far beyond what is considered safe.

    What's the big deal about lead? Lead is a metal, which when absorbed into the body, can cause serious and often permanent damage to internal organs and bodily systems. It was once added to gasoline and paint until it was banned by the federal government for those applications. It's still used today in products like stained glass, bullets, and batteries.

    If you're concerned about lead, here's the low-down.

  • How do you become exposed to lead?

    Iris Price | Improvement Center Columnist | April 20, 2016

    Testing for lead paintWhile lead can and does occur naturally in the environment, mining and manufacturing as well as the once extensive use of lead-based products have left extremely dangerous concentrations of lead behind, both indoors and out.

    What is considered a dangerous level? For the most vulnerable members of the population -- children under age six -- it's 5 micrograms per deciliter, according to the latest information from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

    You may have assumed you were safe from lead because lead-based paint and leaded gasoline haven't been manufactured in decades. However, if your home was built prior to 1978, the year the ban on lead paint went into effect, lead may still be present in and around your home from these sources:

    • Household dust
    • Lead-contaminated soil
    • Chips of deteriorating lead paint
    • Renovations that disturb lead-painted surfaces
    • Old plumbing that leaches lead into your water

    In addition, you can be at risk of contamination from the following:

    • Vintage toys and furniture still coated with lead paint
    • Food served in imported dishes and cups made with lead
  • Who is at potential risk from lead?

    Iris Price | Improvement Center Columnist | April 20, 2016

    Paint chips on hardwood floorYoung children. From the womb through age six, the youngest children absorb lead into their quickly developing bodies. Their brains and nervous system can be damaged, often irreparably. Even small amounts of lead can cause the following problems for infants and young children:

    • Cognitive issues and hyperactivity
    • Slowed physical development
    • Behavioral issues
    • Reduced IQ
    • Anemia

    Pregnant women. In addition to possible reproductive issues for both men and women, lead can cause slowed fetal growth and premature birth.

    All adults. Lead can cause heart and circulatory issues such as high blood pressure. Kidney function may also be compromised.

    Pets. Dogs and cats, too, can become severely poisoned from swallowing items like fishing sinkers, shot gun pellets, and batteries, all of which contain lead.

  • Ways to prevent exposure to lead in the home

    Iris Price | Improvement Center Columnist | April 20, 2016

    Lead paint removalNow that you know what a hazard lead is, here's how to help protect your family from exposure to contamination. If you have an older home, especially one built prior to the late 1970s, consider taking these precautions:

    • Test for lead. Before you do anything else, have the health department test the paint and dust in your home.
    • Don't allow children access to areas of the home with lead paint. Some young children put paint chips in their mouths. Don't give them the opportunity to lick or eat lead paint. If possible, keep them locked out of areas of the home where there is lead painted surfaces. Likewise, make sure you don't allow them to play with any lead-painted antique toys.
    • Keep lead paint chips and dust contained when doing renovations. You may want to eliminate the lead paint asap, but it has to be done with care. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) publishes comprehensive guidelines for doing renovations in Lead Paint Safety: A Field Guide for Painting, Home Maintenance, and Renovation Work. It provides best practices. In addition, keep pregnant women and children out of the house while work is in progress.
    • Damp-wipe and wet-mop your home on a frequent, regular basis. Dust from paint chips mixes with household dust. If you don't give it a chance to build up, you and your children won't be breathing it in. Pay special attention around window sills. Opening and closing windows creates paint chips, so keep them closed if you can.
    • Take off your shoes when coming in from outdoors. Don't bring contaminated soil into the house.
    • Clean children's toys and hands frequently. Washing both can help keep contaminated soil and dust out of your child's mouth.
    • Provide an alternate place for children to play outdoors. Don't let them dig in the soil if you suspect it's contaminated.
    • When cooking, start with only cold water from the tap. Hot water tends to contain higher levels of lead in homes with lead pipes.
    • When doing activities involving products that contain lead, shower and change clothes after. Examples include making stained glass, going to the firing range, or soldering.

    Sometimes we don't know what we don't know, but now that you're aware of potential lead exposure, you have ways to protect yourself and your family from its devastating effects.