Did you know that lead can be really dangerous for your children? Not only that, but lead exposure is not just from old water pipes!
Lead causes harm to the brain. This can cause behavior problems, decreased learning ability, and anxiety or irritability.
Unfortunately, these effects are long-term and won’t go away. That’s why it’s so important to protect your child from lead as early as possible!
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I’ll be honest, as an environmental chemist with a focus on human health, I think lead exposure is possibly the biggest environmental concern we have. It’s much more wide-spread than people are aware of. And because it’s an old problem, it’s not as “sexy” as emerging contaminants such as new pesticides and food additives.
But just because a problem is old doesn’t mean it isn’t still important to focus on. That’s why I want to tell you what you need to know about how to keep your kids safe from lead in paint and lead in water.
Our family’s experience with lead paint
When we first moved to Central PA six years ago, we rented an older home built around the 1920s.
Because the home was so old (older homes are more likely to contain lead paint), we asked the landlord before signing the lease whether there was lead in the house. The landlord assured us 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 (and eventually a baby too!).
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. Usually, they were happy with that arrangement, but during a stormy night 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 / bull terrier mix, started having stomach trouble. Like serious stomach trouble. It wasn’t completely unusual, since shar-peis are known for weak stomachs, and with her nervous disposition, we didn’t think much of it.
And she was acting more anxious 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 didn’t know what had caused her to pass, but chalked it up to some underlying health problem we were unaware of.
A few months later, I was teaching my chemistry class (I was an assistant professor of chemistry) how to test for metals. To give them practice at testing paint for lead, I scraped off a few paint chips from the same windowsill 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, because I had a two-year old and an infant.
Fortunately, we’d already signed a new lease at a different home. Our landlord had lied to us, and our dog paid the price.
I had the kids tested for lead, and thank God they were okay. But they could have easily been exposed to lead in that house, particularly if my teething baby started chewing on the windowsill.
In Pennsylvania, where I live, lead is 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.
Dangers of lead for kids
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. According to the World Health Organization, lead can cause a wide array of problems for children, including high blood pressure, reduced kidney function, and reproductive system issues.
And even at lower exposure levels, lead can have effects on kids brain development and behavior. Lead causes reduced IQ, an increased risk of ADHD, and more aggressive behavior. The combination of these factors leads to a higher violent crime rate when these kids get older!
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. But first, we have to know how our family is exposed to lead if we want to avoid ot.
How can my family be exposed to lead?
There are several different exposure routes for lead to get into your body (or your child’s body). Here are the major three you need to be concerned about.
Lead from water pipes
Even though the Flint, MI water crisis is the most well-known recent case of lead exposure, lead exposure typically doesn’t come from contaminated water. Flint was a special case in which the water source was switched. The new water treatment facility forgot to add a special additive that prevents lead from leaching from pipes into the water.
While lead can come from water pipes, few families need to worry about this possibility.
Lead from old lead paint
A major source of lead exposure is paint on homes built before 1980. Lead paint was banned in 1978, so homes built and painted after the old paint supply was used up are much less likely to have lead in them. 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!
Source: Protect your family from exposures to lead, US EPA.
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.
Lead contamination in soil
Pesticides aren’t the only hazardous chemicals found in food! Lead can be found in soil too. It’s most likely to be in the dirt right under the eaves of houses (where paint flakes off and falls to the ground), but it can also be deposited from smoke stacks in old industrial areas.
RELATED: 5 easy ways to avoid pesticides in food
Since lead is an element (instead of a molecule), it won’t break down over time. The bad news about this is that even if a lead-producing industry has been gone from an area for decades, there is likely still lead in the soil.
How to test your home for lead
If you are in an older home or live in a gentrified old industrial area, you need to test your home for lead. I realize it may be scary to do so, but it’s more important to know so you can fix the problem instead of just ignoring it. And don’t worry; you don’t have to be a chemist to do these tests!
Testing paint for lead can be as easy as buying a lead test kit off Amazon. The kits are inexpensive and super easy to use.
If you want to test your water for heavy metals such as lead or copper, these test strips are what you’ll need (notice the paint test kits won’t work for this). Like I said, water contamination is less likely to be a problem, but if the test gives you ease of mind then it can’t hurt.
And if you plan to garden, it’s a good idea to test soil for lead too. That way, you don’t risk eating lead that your fruits and vegetables uptake while they grow. These kits are best for soil testing.
What to do if you find lead in your home
If you’re in an older home and you find lead in the paint, the immediate temptation may be to get that old paint out ASAP. DON’T scrape old lead paint off your wall by yourself!
Scraping off old lead paint will make the problem worse by creating dust with tiny lead particles in it. When this dust floats through your home and you (or your kids) breathe it, your family will be exposed to lead in a much worse way than if you just left the paint alone.
It is possible to get the paint off the wall, but you’ll need to hire a professional certified in dealing with lead paint. Here’s a list from the EPA of contractors certified in lead abatement.
The problem is, lead abatement is difficult and wildly expensive. That’s why so many old homes with lead in them still exist.
Believe it or not, it might be best just to leave the paint in your home, undisturbed. If you paint over the old lead paint, it will be “encapsulated.” As long as this new layer stays intact, your family is much safer.
Even if lead paint in your home is covered over, it’s still possible for lead paint to slowly flake away and create dust in your home. Once lead is in dust, it can transfer to you or your kids.
Inhaled dust can cause lead exposure. Children are even more likely to be exposed to lead. If they play on the floor, they may get lead dust on their hands. From there, normal kid behaviors such as thumb-sucking or putting toys in their mouth can lead to even more lead to enter their body.
And there can be cross contamination from the yard to your home! If there is lead in your soil, walking outside and then coming back in with your shoes on tracks lead all throughout your home. For that reason, always take off your shoes at the door.
When 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.
Soil testing and lead in home gardens
Plants are able to uptake metals from the soil they grow in. If there’s lead in your garden, there’s likely lead in your produce (test your soil with this kit before setting up a garden).
But there’s ways to prevent lead uptake from soil, so you can still eat your home-grown veggies. Build yourself a raised garden! 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.
Contaminants from the surroundings, such as lead dust, can blow into your garden soil. For this reason, you need to change this soil out every few years.
Lead based paint disclosures for buyers and renters
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 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 sold (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 financial interest of the seller/lessor to just never test for lead. That way, they can simply ignore the problem. Don’t ask, don’t tell.
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 led lead remediation projects. I’d be happy to help or answer questions about lead in paint or soil. Just comment below!