Introduction to Lead

Lead is a metal that, today, is used primarily in vehicle batteries. Before its hazards were well understood, it was used in leaded gasoline, lead-based paint, in the solder used to seal food cans, in water pipes, in sinkers, and in ammunition. As a result, although all these used have now been banned or reduced to minimize lead’s harmful effects, many areas—both industrial and residential—have been contaminated with lead.

It was only in the last fifty years that strong measures have been taken to control lead. Lead-based paint for use in residences was banned in the United States in 1978, and it was not until the 1980s that the use of leaded gasoline was phased out, being banned completely since January 1, 1996.

What Is Lead?

A naturally occurring mineral, lead is found in the Earth’s crust in small amounts. Due to human activities, in mining, manufacturing and burning fossil fuels, lead can now be found throughout our environment.

How Do People Come in Contact with Lead?

People come into contact with lead in a variety of ways:

    • Eating food that contains lead.
    • Drinking water that contains lead leached from pipes that contain lead solder.
    • Spending time where lead paints have been used and are deteriorating, which can contribute to lead dust.
    • Working in an industry or with a hobby that uses lead, such as stained glass.
    • Using health products that contain lead.
    • Suffering from pica, a craving for eating non-food items (leading to ingestion of lead paint chips).
    • Eating from pottery or glazed pottery that may contain lead.

doctor The fact is that older homes may have more potential for bringing people and lead into contact. Many homes built prior to 1960 contain heavily leaded paint. Homes built as late as 1978 also may have lead paint.

Health and Lead

Lead has serious health effects, particularly on fetuses and young children. Exposure can lead to delayed development and lowered IQ, as well as behavioral problems.

Lead Testing

Because, according to the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), around 25% of the housing in the United States may contain lead paint in hazardous levels, every home built before 1978 should be tested for its presence.

Spot test kits for lead are available, but the National Safety Council (NSC) warns that they are not completely accurate and should not be relied on as definitive. Better is a lead dust sampling kit, which is available from the National Safety Council. Additional information can be found at the website.

Alternatively, you can hire a lead inspector to find out if there is lead paint in your home, or a risk assessor or sampling technician to discover whether there is lead-contaminated dust, where in the house it is located, and what should be done to take care of the problem.

There are also tests for your drinking water available, as well as tests for people to determine their exposure. Check with a health care professional about testing for people.

What Not to Do . . .

Simply getting rid of lead is not the answer. Why? First, it is safe to leave lead paint in good condition and not likely to deteriorate just as it is. Second, because certain techniques, such as scraping, sanding, or burning wood with lead paint releases the lead and makes the problem worse—people have been poisoned using these approaches. In short, the EPA advises that hiring a trained professional to remove lead paint is the appropriate response. In addition, it is suggested that residents move out during the clean-up, particularly children and pregnant women.

Written by Mary Elizabeth