Did you know that lead can be really dangerous for your children? I want to let you know about our family’s experience with lead exposure and how to protect your own family.
Our family’s experience with lead in the home
When we first moved to Central PA, we had a hard time finding a house to rent. We ended up settling down in an older home, probably from the 1920s or so.
I didn’t know much about lead, but I did know that it was a possibility in older homes. I told my husband to email the landlord from Georgia (where we were at the time) and ask him if there was lead in this house. He assured me there was not.
So we moved into the home. I never really loved it because it was really cramped, but we made do with our toddler and two sweet dogs. After a few months, I got pregnant, and we had our second baby. Life kept going.
Our dogs, an old, very lazy border collie, and a sweet but nervous rescue shar-pei / bull terrier mix, stayed in the laundry room at night. They never had a problem with that. One night (maybe it stormed?), the dogs were stressed out and one of them chewed on the windowsill in the room. It was annoying, but oh well.
Soon thereafter, Sasha, our funny little shar-pei and bull terrier mix, started having stomach trouble. Like serious stomach trouble. It wasn’t completely unusual, since a. shar-peis are known for weak stomachs, and with her nervous disposition, we didn’t think much of it.
And maybe she was acting more nervous too, but it was clear that she had been abused before we got her, so again, we didn’t put anything together.
Until one morning my husband went downstairs and discovered the worst had happened to Sasha. We were upset, but again, we thought perhaps it was some disease we simply weren’t aware of.
A few months later, I was teaching my chemistry class about testing for metals. For the heck of it, I thought, “Hey, let’s test my house for lead!” I grabbed a few paint chips from the same place that my dog had chewed.
There were definitely older layers underneath the top layer of paint. My students tested the paint, and it had HUGE amounts of lead in it. It was terrifying. Fortunately, we’d already signed a new lease at a different home. So our landlord lied to us, and our dog paid the price.
I had the kids tested for lead, and thank God they were okay.
I know we all want to protect our littles (and not-so-littles) and pets from dangerous chemicals. While this might not be the most cheery post, lead is something we all need to know about, particularly if you’re in older, industrial areas.
In Pennsylvania, where I live, it’s a major problem. In fact, over 20% of kids in my local city have elevated blood lead levels. This isn’t just a problem here though. There are areas across California that also have high numbers of kids with high lead levels. Anywhere with older housing likely has some lead exposure problems going on.
What are the dangers of lead?
Many people are aware of the lead exposure tragedy that happened in Flint, Michigan back in 2014 and 2015, but few are aware that lead is an on-going problem today in many areas around the United States and the world.
There is no safe level of lead exposure. With that said, I want to make sure the information here is helpful, not just scary. Trust me, I know moms (and dads) deal with enough anxiety as it is. Here is a link to information from the CDC about the damage lead can cause, particularly to young (and even unborn!) children.
My main goal here is to give you awareness of where and how lead exposures can happen, and how you can protect yourself and your children from further exposure. Fortunately, there are lots of common-sense ways to minimize exposure!
How can my family be exposed to lead?
Often, lead exposure doesn’t come from water. A major source of lead exposure is paint on homes built before 1978. Below, you can see that nearly a quarter of homes built between 1960 and 1977 have lead paint in them, while 89% of those built before 1940 do!
While this paint could be used anywhere on a home, inside or out, it’s most likely to be found on door frames and window sills.
Source: Protect your family from exposures to lead, US EPA.
What do I do if my home has lead in it?
If you’re in an older home, the immediate temptation may be to get that old paint out ASAP. DON’T start scraping paint off your wall! This actually will make the problem worse by creating dust with tiny lead particles in it. It is possible to get the paint off the wall, but you’ll need to hire a professional certified in dealing with lead paint.
Believe it or not, it might be best just to leave the paint in your home, undisturbed. The caveat is that you need to paint over the old lead paint. This will “encapsulate” it, keeping your family from being exposed to it.
Even if lead paint in your home is covered over, it’s still possible for lead to get into dust in your home. Once it’s in dust, it’s possible for little ones to ingest lead after playing and then sucking thumbs or doing other hand-to-mouth actions.
When dust gets kicked up, it can be inhaled too. So it’s a good idea to dust and vacuum frequently and wash hands regularly.
Even if you’re not in an older home, lead from other areas or from old industry can be left in the soil. Since lead is an element, it won’t break down over time, so even if it’s been a long time since a lead-producing industry was in the area, it’s likely to still be around.
And there can be cross contamination too! If there is lead in your soil, if you walk around outside, come back in, and leave your shoes on, you’ll be tracking lead all throughout your home. So one tip is to take off your shoes at the door. If your kids play outside, make sure they don’t eat dirt (always a struggle with little kids, I know), and wash their hands as soon as they come in.
Lead and home gardening
Another thing to think about with lead in soil. Plants are able to uptake metals from the soil they grow in. So if there’s lead in your garden, there’s likely lead in your produce.
But there’s ways to keep this from being a problem, so you can still eat your home-grown veggies! Raised garden beds or pots prevent your plants from growing in contaminated soil. Fill your containers with soil that’s been bought from a reliable source. And finally, you’ll want to change this soil out every few years, since there’s the possibility that contaminants from the surroundings can blow into your garden.
Your rights when buying or renting a home that possibly has lead contamination
Maybe you’re in an area where you’d love to live in a newer home where lead paint and dust are less likely, but it’s simply not economically feasible.
You do have rights when it comes to looking at homes to buy or lease, but you need to be aware of them. Unfortunately, landlords and home sellers have the upper hand legally when it comes to disclosing about lead. Below is an excerpt of documentation required by the EPA when a home built before 1978 is built. (full document for renting of a pre-1978 home, with very similar wording, here).
If you look carefully, you might notice something interesting. The seller (or lessor) is required by law to disclose if they know there is lead paint, but these is no option for them to say there is not lead paint. Instead, there’s only an “I don’t know (insert emoji shrug here)” option.
Of course, that means it’s in the best interest of the seller/lessor to just never test for lead. That way, they aren’t stuck having to tell everyone what they found.
But! Home buyers (not lessees) have a ten-day period in which they can have lead testing done if they desire. While the cost of testing would likely fall onto the buyer, it might be worth the peace of mind before you commit to a new home.
Recap of how to keep your family safe from lead contamination
- Keep kids and pets from chewing on windowsills, especially in older homes.
- Paint over old paint in your home or have it professionally removed. DO NOT try to remove lead-based paint yourself!
- Dust and vacuum frequently to remove lead particles from flaking paint.
- Remove shoes immediately when coming inside.
- Keep kids from eating soil and wash hands immediately after coming inside.
- If you garden, grow crops in raised beds and renew soil every 2-4 years.
- Wash produce before eating.
- Ask lessees or home sellers point-blank about lead before committing to a home. You can have lead testing performed if desired.
I hope this information helps you protect your family. Please SHARE with your friends and families who live in homes built before the late 70s and early 80s!
And if you have any concerns or questions about lead contamination, I’ve actually led lead remediation projects, so I’d be happy to help. Just comment below!