Lead poisoning is not just a problem in crumbling housing in inner cities. It's a common, tragic result of remodeling older homes and other sources. Small exposures, once thought harmless, can cause serious, permanent damage to the brain. Young children are especially at risk. Even the unintentional swallowing or breathing of tiny amounts of lead dust can cause learning problems, lowered IQ, hyperactivity and behavioral problems.
Children can be poisoned by eating sweet-tasting, lead-based paint chips on older homes or tainted toys. However, the more frequent exposure source today is from lead-contaminated dust in indoor air and on home surfaces. The hand-to-mouth play of young children increases their exposure.
Where does the lead dust come from? In an older home, it can come from normal wear and tear of old paint, but the hazard can be greatly increase during home remodeling projects that disturb lead-based paint. This paint was prevalent in the 1950s and before, but was still sold as late as 1978.
Lead can also leach into drinking water from lead plumbing pipes, fixtures or solder. Soils can be another source of lead dust, especially when they are tracked into the house. Lead was used in gasoline for about 60 years, so soils near busy roadways are high risk.
What to do? Be aware that remodeling projects can produce a lot of lead paint dust. If you live in an older home, never dry sand or sandblast old paint. If your home was built before 1978, either get it tested for lead or assume there could be lead paint and hire only Lead Certified Renovators who completed a training class, passed a test and are registered with the Environmental Protection Agency. You can find a list of local certified contractors and learn more about lead-safe work practices at www.epa.gov/lead, including how to:
1. Protect your family, neighbors and tenants with signs and barriers to stay out of the work area.
2. Prepare the work area by properly covering surfaces and air vents.
3. Protect yourself from dust and debris with N-100-rated masks and other protective gear.
4. Work wet by misting surfaces before scraping or disturbing paint.
5. Work clean by capturing all scrapings, using correct disposal methods and cleaning carefully.
Even if not remodeling, anyone who lives in an older house should use damp rags or mops for dust control; these are more effective at capturing dust and keeping it out of the air than dry methods or vacuuming. Choose a home vacuum with a large HEPA filter that all the vacuumed air passes through. In homes with plumbing more than 20 years old, run the first tap water of the morning for a minute to flush out the water that’s been in the pipes all night.
A diet rich in calcium and iron is helpful to reduce the body’s absorption of lead that is ingested. Finally, it is important to have a blood lead test done for young children living in older homes or in communities with a high risk of lead poisoning. Some health agencies recommend testing all children annually from ages one to six. Children with lead poisoning may not look or feel sick.
Parents need to be concerned about many things in protecting their children. Protecting them from lead poisoning is a lifelong gift and advantage. A handsome old home can pose a serious health risk, but knowing about it is a key step in preventing lead poisoning.
For more information on lead and other indoor air quality risks, visit www.healthyindoorair.org and www.epa.gov/iaq. To find out more about LSU AgCenter educational programs and materials in family and consumer sciences -- including nutrition and health, family life and family economics – visit www.lsuagcenter.com or call your parish LSU AgCenter Cooperative Extension office. If your remodeling or painting contractor is not Lead Certified, certification classes are periodically offered in Louisiana through LaHouse Resource Center. For more information, visit www.lsuagcenter.com/LaHouse