Lead is a naturally occurring element found in small amounts in the earth’s crust. While it has some beneficial uses, it can be toxic to humans and animals causing of health effects.
Where is Lead Found?
Lead can be found in all parts of our environment – the air, the soil, the water, and even inside our homes. Much of our exposure comes from human activities including the use of fossil fuels including past use of leaded gasoline, some types of industrial facilities, and past use of lead-based paint in homes. Lead and lead compounds have been used in a wide variety of products found in and around our homes, including paint, ceramics, china, leaded crystal glassware, pipes/plumbing materials, solders, gasoline, batteries, ammunition, radiators, inks, dust, soil, drinking water, imported candies/foods, workplace/hobbies, imported food cans, metal jewelry, mini-blinds, folk medicines and cosmetics.
Lead may enter the environment from these past and current uses. Lead can also be emitted into the environment from industrial sources and contaminated sites, such as former lead smelters. While natural levels of lead in soil range between 50 and 400 parts per million, mining, smelting, and refining activities have resulted in substantial increases in lead levels in the environment, especially near mining and smelting sites.
When lead is released to the air from industrial sources or vehicles, it may travel long distances before settling to the ground, where it usually sticks to soil particles. Lead may move from soil into ground water depending on the type of lead compound and the characteristics of the soil.
Federal and state regulatory standards have helped to minimize or eliminate the amount of lead in air, drinking water, soil, consumer products, food, and occupational settings.
Who is at Risk?
Lead is particularly dangerous to children because their growing bodies absorb more lead than adults do and their brains and nervous systems are more sensitive to the damaging effects of lead. Babies and young children can also be more highly exposed to lead because they often put their hands and other objects that can have lead from dust or soil on them into their mouths. Children may also be exposed to lead by eating and drinking food or water containing lead or from dishes or glasses that contain lead, inhaling lead dust from lead-based paint or lead-contaminated soil or from playing with toys with lead paint.
Even low levels of lead in the blood of children can result in:
– Behavior and learning problems
– Lower IQ and Hyperactivity
– Slowed growth
– Hearing Problems
– In rare cases, ingestion of lead can cause seizures, coma and even death.
Lead can affect almost every organ and system in your body. Children six years old and younger are most susceptible to the effects of lead.
Adults, Including Pregnant Women
Adults may be exposed to lead by eating and drinking food or water containing lead or from dishes or glasses that contain lead. They may also breath lead dust by spending time in areas where lead-based paint is deteriorating, and during renovation or repair work that disturbs painted surfaces in older homes and buildings. Working in a job or engaging in hobbies where lead is used, such as making stained glass, can increase exposure as can certain folk remedies containing lead.
A pregnant woman’s exposure to lead from these sources is of particular concern because it can result in exposure to her developing baby. Lead can accumulate in our bodies over time, where it is stored in bones along with calcium. During pregnancy, lead is released from bones as maternal calcium and is used to help form the bones of the fetus. This is particularly true if a woman does not have enough dietary calcium. Lead can also cross the placental barrier exposing the fetus the lead. This can result in serious effects to the mother and her developing fetus, including:
– Reduced growth of the fetus
– Premature birth
– Lead can also be transmitted through breast milk.
Lead is also harmful to other adults. Adults exposed to lead can suffer from:
– Cardiovascular effects, increased blood pressure and incidence of hypertension
– Decreased kidney function
– Reproductive problems (in both men and women)
Lower Your Chances of Exposure to Lead
Simple steps like keeping your home clean and well-maintained will go a long way in preventing lead exposure. You can lower the chances of exposure to lead in your home, both now and in the future, by taking these steps:
– Inspect and maintain all painted surfaces to prevent paint deterioration
– Address water damage quickly and completely
– Keep your home clean and dust-free
– Clean around painted areas where friction can generate dust, such as doors, windows, and drawers. Wipe these areas with a – wet sponge or rag to remove paint chips or dust
– Use only cold water to prepare food and drinks
– Flush water outlets used for drinking or food preparation
– Clean debris out of outlet screens or faucet aerators on a regular basis
– Wash children’s hands, bottles, pacifiers and toys often
– Teach children to wipe and remove their shoes and wash hands after playing outdoors
– Ensure that your family members eat well-balanced meals. Children with healthy diets absorb less lead.
Test your home’s drinking water
Testing your home’s drinking water is the only way to confirm if lead is present. Most water systems test for lead at a certain number of homes as a regular part of water monitoring. These tests give a system-wide picture of whether or not corrosion is being controlled but do not reflect conditions at each home served by that water system. Since each home has different plumbing pipes and materials, test results are likely to be different for each home.
You may want to test your water if:
– your home has lead pipes (lead is a dull gray metal that is soft enough to be easily scratched with a house key), or
– your non-plastic plumbing was installed before 1986.
Interior painted areas— Examine walls and interior surfaces to see if the paint is cracking, chipping, or peeling, and check areas on doors or windows where painted surfaces may rub together.
Exterior painted areas— Check exterior paint as well; it can flake off and contaminate nearby soil where children may play.
Surrounding areas— Be sure there are no large structures nearby with peeling or flaking paint that could contaminate the soil around play areas.
Cleaning practices— Make sure the staff washes any pacifiers, toys, or bottles that fall on the floor. Also, make sure the staff has the children wash their hands thoroughly after playing outside and before eating or sleeping.
Play areas— Look to see if areas where children play are dust-free and clean. Outside, check for bare soil and test for lead.
Playground equipment— Older equipment can contain lead-based paint.
Painted toys and furniture— Make sure the paint is not cracking, chipping, or peeling.
Also, ask about testing all of the drinking water outlets in the facility and on the playground, especially those that provide water for drinking, cooking, and preparing juice and infant formula.
Older Homes and Buildings
If your home was built before 1978, there is a good chance it has lead-based paint. In 1978, the federal government banned consumer uses of lead-containing paint, but some states banned it even earlier. Lead from paint, including lead-contaminated dust, is one of the most common causes of lead poisoning.
Lead paint is still present in millions of homes, sometimes under layers of newer paint. If the paint is in good shape, the lead paint is usually not a problem. Deteriorating lead-based paint (peeling, chipping, chalking, cracking, damaged, or damp) is a hazard and needs immediate attention.
It may also be a hazard when found on surfaces that children can chew or that get a lot of wear-and-tear, such as:
– Windows and window sills
– Doors and door frames
– Stairs, railings, banisters, and porches
Be sure to keep all paint in excellent shape and clean up dust frequently. Lead in household dust results from indoor sources such as deteriorating lead-based paint. Lead dust can also be tracked into the home from soil outside that is contaminated by deteriorated exterior lead-based paint and other lead sources, such as industrial pollution and past use of leaded gasoline.
Renovation, repair or painting activities can create toxic lead dust when painted surfaces are disturbed or demolished.
Pipes and solder — Lead is used in some water service lines and household plumbing materials. Lead can leach, or enter the water, as water flows through the plumbing. Lead pipes and lead solder were commonly used until 1986.
Soil, Yards and Playgrounds
Lead is naturally-occurring, and it can be found in high concentrations in some areas. In addition, soil, yards and playgrounds can become contaminated when exterior lead-based paint from houses or buildings flakes or peels and gets into the soil. Soil may also be contaminated from past use of leaded gasoline in cars, from industrial sources, or even from contaminated sites including former lead smelters.
Lead in soil can be ingested as a result of hand-to-mouth activity that is common for young children and from eating vegetables that may have taken up lead from soil in the garden. Lead in soil may also be inhaled if re-suspended in the air, or tracked into your house thereby spreading the contamination.
Check the exterior of your home, including porches and fences, for flaking or deteriorating lead-based paint that may contaminate soil in your yard or be tracked into your house. To avoid tracking contaminated soil into your house, put doormats outside and inside all entryways, and remove your shoes before entering.
To reduce exposure to lead, after playing or working outdoors, EPA recommends that children and adults leave their shoes at the door or use door mats, and wash their hands. To keep children from playing in soil near your home, plant bushes close to the house.
Also, older playground equipment can still contain old lead-based paint, and artificial turf and playground surfaces made from shredded rubber can contain lead. Take precautions to ensure young children do not eat shredded rubber, or put their hands in their mouth before washing them.
Lead in household dust results from indoor sources such as old lead paint on surfaces that are frequently in motion or bump or rub together (such as window frames), deteriorating old lead paint on any surface, home repair activities, tracking lead contaminated soil from the outdoors into the indoor environment, or even from lead dust on clothing worn at a job site.
Even in well-maintained homes, lead dust can form when lead-based paint is scraped, sanded or heated during home repair activities. Lead paint chips and dust can get on surfaces and objects that people touch. Settled lead dust can re-enter the air when the home is vacuumed or swept, or people walk through it. To reduce exposure to lead dust, it is especially important to maintain all painted surfaces in good condition, and to clean frequently, to reduce the likelihood of chips and dust forming.
Using a lead-safe certified renovator to perform renovation, repair and painting jobs is a good way to reduce the likelihood of contaminating your home with lead-based paint dust.
Lead can be found in many products:
– Painted toys, furniture and toy jewelry— That favorite dump truck or rocking chair handed down in the family, antique doll furniture, or toy jewelry could contain lead-based paint or contain lead in the material it is made from. Biting or swallowing toys or toy jewelry that contain lead can cause a child to suffer from lead poisoning.
– Food or liquid containers— Food and liquids stored or served in lead crystal or lead-glazed pottery or porcelain can become contaminated because lead can leach from these containers into the food or liquid.
– Plumbing Products— Materials like pipes and fixtures that contain lead can corrode over time.
Lead can enter drinking water through corrosion of plumbing materials, especially where the water has high acidity or low mineral content that corrodes pipes and fixtures. Homes built before 1986 are more likely to have lead pipes, fixtures and solder. However, new homes are also at risk: even legally “lead-free” plumbing may contain up to eight percent lead. Beginning January 2014, changes to the Safe Drinking Water Act will further reduce the maximum allowable lead content of pipes, pipe fittings, plumbing fittings, and fixtures to 0.25 percent. The most common problem is with brass or chrome-plated brass faucets and fixtures with lead solder, from which significant amounts of lead can enter into the water, especially hot water.
Corrosion is a dissolving or wearing away of metal caused by a chemical reaction between water and your plumbing. A number of factors are involved in the extent to which lead enters the water including the chemistry of the water (acidity and alkalinity), the amount of lead it comes into contact with, how long the water stays in the plumbing materials, and the presence of protective scales or coatings inside the plumbing materials.
To address corrosion of lead and copper into drinking water, EPA issued the Lead & Copper Rule under the authority of the Safe Drinking Water Act. The LCR requires corrosion control treatment to prevent lead and copper from contaminating drinking water. Corrosion control treatment means systems must make drinking water less corrosive to the materials it comes into contact with on its way to consumers’ taps.
Jobs and Hobbies
You could bring lead home on your hands or clothes, or contaminate your home directly if you:
– Work with lead and/or lead-based paint (for example, renovation and painting, mining, smelting, battery recycling, refinishing old furniture, autobody, shooting ranges).
– Have a hobby that uses lead (for example, hunting, fishing, stained glass, stock cars, making pottery).
– If someone in your family is a renovator or contractor working in older housing.
– If you are an owner or operator of outdoor rifle, pistol, trap, skeet or sporting clay ranges.
Lead can be found in shot, fishing sinkers and jigs, came and solder used in stained glass, weights used in stock cars, dyes and glazes used in pottery, and many other places.
If you have a job or hobby where you may come into contact with lead:
– never put leaded materials (for example, fishing sinkers, lead came or solder for stained glass or leaded pottery clay or glaze) in your mouth
– avoid handling food or touching your mouth or face while engaged in working with lead materials and wash hands before eating or drinking following such activities
– shower and change clothes before entering your vehicle or coming home
– launder your work and hobby clothes separately from the rest of your family’s clothes
– keep all work and hobby materials away from living areas
Some folk remedies that contain lead, such as “greta” and “azarcon” are used to treat an upset stomach. Some folk remedies for morning sickness, including “nzu”, “poto” and “calabash chalk,” contain dangerous levels of lead and other chemicals. Consuming even small amounts of lead can be harmful. Lead poisoning from folk remedies can cause serious and irreversible illness.
Lead paint is serious business. Lead inspection and lead risk assessment are useful first steps which can lead to more thoughtful decisions on managing lead paint and lead hazards, and should be done only by qualified, trained, experienced and credited/certified professionals (that’s us!!).
Lead abatement is an activity designed to permanently eliminate lead-based paint hazards. Abatement is sometimes ordered by a state or local government, and can involve specialized techniques not typical of most residential contractors. EPA requires individuals and firms who perform abatement projects in pre-1978 target housing and child-occupied facilities to be certified and follow specific work practices.
True/False Questions on Lead
1. House paint no longer contains lead, so it’s not a problem.
1. False. Because household paint before the 1970’s often contained lead, it may still pose a problem. As lead paint ages, it can chip or crumble into dust. Exposure to lead paint dust or chips can cause serious health problems, especially to children and pregnant women. So, if you live in or own an older home, you need to know how to protect yourself and others.
2. You can tell by looking if paint contains lead.
2. False. The only way to be sure if paint contains lead is to have it tested by a qualified professional. Home test kits are not reliable, and can’t tell you whether the paint poses a risk.
3. If I have lead-based paint, I can still safely remodel or renovate.
3. True. Small projects that disturb old surfaces which have lead-based paint can be done safely. In fact, it is best to assume that building materials in an older home contain lead, and take proper precautions. Larger jobs should be done by trained professionals.
4. Getting rid of lead paint is better than leaving it there.
4. False. Lead paint that is in good condition is usually not a hazard. However, if you plan to do a project which disturbs the paint in any way, it must be done carefully.
5. Some methods of removing lead-based paint actually do more harm than good.
5. True. Some methods, such as dry sanding, dry scraping, torching, or power sanding can create huge amounts of lead dust. Once the dust is released into the home, it can make occupants sick if it enters the body. Always use a method that creates the least amount of dust and fumes.
6. Preparing to do the job is as important as the methods used to do it.
6. True. It’s important to take certain precautions to protect your family. Children and pregnant women should leave the work area. Remove all furnishings (even rugs, if possible) before beginning. The work area should be sealed with plastic and taped down to keep the lead dust in. Cover air vents and turn off heaters and air conditioning systems during renovation and remodeling.
7. A dust mask will protect you from breathing lead dust.
7. False. A dust mask is not sufficient. It is best to wear a properly fitted respirator with special lead (HEPA) filters. Coveralls, goggles and gloves are also important to wear–throw them away when the work is done, or wash them separately. Do not eat, smoke or drink in the work area.
8. Besides removing lead paint, there are other ways to protect my family from lead dust.
8. True. One way to prevent exposure to lead is to cover the surface with a new one, such as drywall. Another way is to use special paints called encapsulants that seal the lead paint to the surface so it won’t chip off. Sometimes the best choice is to replace an item such as a window or a door containing lead paint.
9. Scraping and sanding are acceptable methods for removing lead-based paint
9. True. Yes, but never without wetting down the surface as you work. Keep a spray bottle of water handy. Wet power sanding is also okay if a special lead (HEPA) filter is attached. Heat stripping can be dangerous, and should only be done by a professional. When removing paint on the outside of your home,never sand blast or power wash.
10. Vacuuming with a household vacuum is the best way to clean up lead dust after a household project.
10. False. Standard household or shop vacuums should not be used because they put lead dust into the air. HEPA vacuums (with special lead filters) are the best. Floors should be wet mopped with a heavy duty household cleaner such as automatic dishwashing detergent and then HEPA vacuumed. Plastic should be rolled and any construction debris wrapped in plastic. After cleaning the work area, remove coveralls and other protective clothing for disposal or separate washing.
11. The only way that I can tell if someone in my family is lead poisoned is by a blood test.
11. True. Sometimes there are no symptoms of lead poisoning at all, or the symptoms can be mistaken for common illnesses. A blood test is the only way to be sure about lead exposure. It’s important to know if children are being exposed to lead, because then you can prevent additional exposure. All children should be tested at age 1 and again at age 2. Lead poisoning can cause fatigue, crankiness, stomachaches, kidney damage, behavior problems, reproductive problems, seizures, coma, and even death.
12. There are regulations regarding lead paint.
12. True. Sellers of homes, landlords and realtors are required to disclose the presence of known lead paint and lead hazards during the sale or rental of housing. Renovation and remodeling contractors are required to warn customers of the hazards of lead paint. Effective March 1, 2000, lead paint abatement firms must be certified by the US Environmental Protection Agency.