Heritage Restoration, Inc.

Truth about Lead Poisoning

Lead is all around us. Prior to 1978, lead was in many everyday products like paint and gasoline, but it also was the pipes and solder feeding us water and in the glazes that covered ceramics and cast iron fixtures. As a result, traces of lead can be found in our water, mixed with dirt, and in the dust from paint. And while society has known that lead causes harmful side effects for centuries, we have only recently learned to what extent. The more we learn, the lower acceptable blood levels of lead become.

Lead poisoning is not great for anyone, but is especially dangerous to children. Lead poisoning damages the liver, restricts abilities to learn, damages the central nervous system, effects digestion and appetite, and creates headaches, memory loss, and joint pain. Long term exposure can lead to high blood pressure, heart disease, kidney disease, and reduced fertility.

Peeling paint in the window well, with loose chips that can become airborne

Prevention from exposure and natural inhibitors to prevent our bodies from absorbing lead are the greatest measures to reduce risk.

Reducing exposure is different from eliminating exposure. The EPA has good information on protecting your family from lead, but how does one interpret the rules to limit danger? First of all, not every building has to be lead safe or lead free. Single family dwellings do not require the building to be lead safe or lead free unless children or adults have actionable elevated levels. Multi-family buildings typically require a Lead Safe certificate when there are two or more units, or where the owner does not live in one of up to two units. Single family units are not required to be lead safe or lead free, so exposure is all about managing risk.

So what do you look for?

  • Interior
    • Paint condition

      Alligatoring paint

      • Dry
      • Chalking
      • Peeling
      • Flaking
      • Alligatoring
      • Chipping
    • Old Plumbing Fixtures
  • Exterior
    • How much paint on siding and trim
    • Lots of “old paint voids”
    • Property use and location

Interior

A house’s interior condition and care is important. First observation is if the house is dirty, from floors, to window wells, to dust on top of trim and doors, then the house can have residual lead dust. The dust can be from paint, but it can also be from the environment around it. Cities can have more lead dust in the air than the country. So best practice is to clean the house from top to bottom, including radiators. Use a wet Swiffer (detergents on the pad will pick up lead dust) to clean areas with dust before you move in.

Heavy, but sound paint

The condition of paint in certain areas is key. Yes windows and doors will have the highest concentration of lead paint, so their condition matters. Make sure the paint is intact and is not “dull” since the gloss in old paint protects the lead from rubbing off. Windows and doors that have failing paint can release lead dust when operating or when a chip flies and is ground up on the floor, so making sure they work freely and the paint is intact. They DO NOT need to be lead free, and some friction is OK, as long what is created is periodically cleaned up. Walls typically have less lead paint on them, but if they are intact, they are fine.

Lead in water is also a concern. Get your water tested, and always use a good filter if you drink it. But even water with high lead content is not good for bathing. Well water is not regulated or tested like municipal sources, but even is the municipality tests, the lead lines as water travels from the source to you can bring in lead.

Another household product that gets little attention are old plumbing fixtures. According to the Lead Safe Vermont.org website,

Lead as commonly added to ceramics and porcelain as both a fluxing agent and a pigment. Studies have shown that approximately 75% of the bathtubs in pre-1978 Vermont housing contain lead in the glaze. Lead can be found in both cast iron and steel tubs and in porcelain bathroom and kitchen sinks. Almost 40% of the tubs with lead in the glaze also had high levels of lead dust which means lead could end up in water or be ingested by children touching the glaze. The risk can be minimized by showering instead of bathing children, or by placing a plastic basin in the bottom of the tub and filling the basin with water instead of the tub.

So have your tubs and sinks tested before you bathe.

Cast Iron Tub

Outside

The same goes for interior paint, but the exterior will have less friction or impact, and you are less likely to breathe ground up paint. Overall, make sure your house is not in a state of excessive failure and keep kids away from eating or rubbing the paint. But what lies in the soil is almost more important. Previous uses in the house, like a boat owner that sanded a boat in the driveway, can see high levels in the soil. Also industrial areas or cities can have high concentration of lead in the soil. If you are concerned or plan to keep the kids outside, have it checked or make new areas for kids to play in, like sandboxes or mulch under swing sets.

Prevention

Diet is not the only line of defense, but it will help lower the risk of your body absorbing it. Make sure your diet is rich in important nutrients such as calcium (green leafy vegetables, legumes, and calcium-fortified orange or apple juice), iron (beans, dark green vegetables, dried fruits, nuts, seeds, and whole grains), zinc (tofu, tempeh, legumes, nuts, seeds, oatmeal), and vitamin C (Broccoli, dark leafy greens, grapefruit, and sweet red pepper).

When doing work inside the house, isolate your work area. I’m not talking about a drop cloth, but sealing the work area and not walking from the work area around the house. Use separate clothing for work and hugging your kids. Invest in a HEPA filter for your shop vac, leave windows closed as you work or create negative air, do not dry sweep, and clean up completely after you finish prepping.

Bottom Line

Don’t use your kids as the canary in the coal mine. Lead in the home is mostly absorbed by ingestion or breathing. So be mindful not to create dust and clean it as the hazard is created. I raised my daughter in an 1885 house that was not certified Lead Safe, but the house was semi-sound and we kept it clean. Be the dust.