Deaths from lead poisoning are now rare, but it is not unusual for a child’s blood to contain enough lead to cause intellectual and developmental delay, neurologic problems, kidney disease, and anemia.
Children absorb 40-50% of the lead that gets into their mouths (adults only 10%).
Even small amounts of lead can produce high concentrations in the blood of young children because their bodies are small.
Since children’s brains are still developing, the effect of lead poisoning can be especially damaging.
Lead-based paint is the most common source of lead poisoning in children. Over many years, painted surfaces crumble and become common household dust. This dust coats the objects that curious children put in their mouths. Children will also chew on window sills or other painted surfaces. Sometimes they will eat old paint chips.
Lead is used to make paint last longer. Prior to World War II, heavily lead-based paints contained as much as 40% lead by dry weight. The amount of lead in household paint was reduced in 1950, and reduced even further in 1978. Most apartments and houses built before 1950 still contain paint with high levels of lead, particularly on doors and around windows. Later household paints may test positive for lead, but generally contain much smaller amounts.
Lead levels in paints are measured in parts per million (ppm). You will need to find the concentration of lead in your paint to determine the level of risk. Currently, 600 ppm of lead is allowed in paint, since this much should not produce toxic levels in a child who eats it. If your chip contains 5,000 ppm or more, you will need to take action to make your home safe.
A common response to a positive lead test is to strip the old paint. DON’T. The process of removing old paint (especially sanding, scraping or burning) can produce large amounts of lead dust. Lead poisoning is very common during remodeling. Use a contractor skilled in lead abatement to enclose or remove the lead from your home.
For information on finding a contractor, and finding local laboratories that can test lead concentration in your home, contact your local Health Department and ask for the Department of Environmental Health.
Another great resource is the National Lead Information Center at 1-800-424-LEAD. Lead specialists are available through this hotline to answer your questions and will send you detailed information on preventing lead poisoning. Requests for written information can also be submitted through their website at www.epa.gov/lead/.
The National Safety Council also has some excellent information on lead through their website at www.nsc.org/issues/lead/. The website also features an affordable lead dust testing kit that can be used to test for lead in your home.