The primary health risk of lead in the home is to children under age six and expectant mothers. Lead poisoning in these individuals can result in suppressed neurological development, however it can also cause high blood pressure and other maladies in adults.
Many houses and apartments built before 1978 have paint that contains lead. Houses built before 1960 usually have paint with the highest concentrations of lead, however homes built as recently as 1978 can also contain lead paint. Approximately 75% of homes built before 1978 (64 million dwellings) contain some lead-based paint. In 1978, the federal government banned lead-based paint for sale.
Lead can also be present in household drinking water. The solder used in the copper plumbing systems of homes built prior to 1986 often contains lead as well. Water sitting in the copper pipes can cause small amounts of lead to “leach” from the solder into the water in the pipes, particularly if the water is somewhat acidic. Our inspectors have also seen old lead water mains running from the street to the home, but this is extremely rare today and somewhat limited to inner city areas.
Other lead hazards also exist, including:
- Old painted toys and furniture
- Food and liquids stored in lead crystal or lead-glazed pottery or porcelain
- Hobbies that use lead (e.g., making pottery or stained glass; refinishing furniture)
- Occupations where you work with lead, which could be brought home
on hands or clothes (e.g., plumbers, pipe fitters, printers, auto
mechanics, body shop workers, home remodelers, construction workers)
- Folk remedies that contain lead (e.g., "greta" and "azarcon" used to treat an upset stomach)
(It should be noted that there is no lead in a pencil. The “lead” in a pencil is actually made of graphite.)
Testing for lead in household water is a relatively simple and inexpensive procedure when done by a professional. A small amount of water is taken from a faucet left unused overnight to provide a “first draw” sample, representative of the first glass of water one may drink in the morning. The sample is then sent to a licensed laboratory for analysis.
There are two basic ways to test for lead paint. Professional testing companies use X-ray fluorescence (XRF) -- this method uses a portable detector that x-rays the painted surfaces in your home to measure the amount of lead in each layer of paint. This testing is done in the home and causes little, if any, paint disturbance.
Laboratory testing of paint samples -- this method uses paint samples from the different surfaces in your home. These samples are usually about two square inches. Samples are not tested in the home, rather they are sent to a laboratory for analysis. This method leaves bare spots on the surfaces tested.
Lead swabs are NOT a reliable method of lead paint testing.
Since it’s generally not feasible or cost effective to replace all of the plumbing in a home, the most common treatment for lead in household water is reverse-osmosis filtration. This consists of a filter placed at the point of use, such as the kitchen faucet that would most commonly be used for drinking or cooking. Reverse osmosis filters are neither simple nor inexpensive, usually costing $300-$400 each or more and requiring periodic maintenance.
Never attempt to remove lead-based paint yourself. Poisoning can occur as a result of scraping and sanding lead-based paint. Take the following steps to make renovations or lead paint removal in your home:
- Contact your local or state health department to have your home tested for lead paint. Some will test for free. (Home test kits are not recommended because they often cannot detect small amounts of lead.)
- Hire a professional to correct or remove lead-based paint from your home. It is essential to have someone who knows how to safely work with lead paints using appropriate equipment and cleanup.
- Have all occupants leave the building until all work is done and cleaned-up, especially children and pregnant women.
There are also special paints available and window/door frame liners that can help make surfaces with lead paint safer to live with. Consult with a paint specialist or lead remediation company for information.