Lead poisoning is considered by many public-health officials the number-one environmental threat to children. It dwarfs radon and asbestos. High concentrations of lead in the body can cause permanent brain damage, even death. Low concentrations can result in reading disorders and hyperactivity and can affect a child’s ability to perform in school. The government is estimating that one out of every nine children under the age of six has enough lead in his blood to place him at risk. The sad truth is that lead poisoning is entirely preventable.
Lead poisoning occurs in the home. It is not confined to children of low-income families living in the inner-city ghettos but has also been found in children of well-to-do families living in the suburbs. According to the EPA, about two-thirds of the homes built before 1940 and one-third to one-half of the homes built between 1940 and 1960 contain heavily leaded paint. A smaller percentage of homes built between 1960 and 1980 also had surfaces coated with lead-based paint. In 1978, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) lowered the legal maximum lead content in most kinds of paint to trace amounts (0.06%), so houses built after 1978 should be relatively free of lead paint.
It has been known for years that children have been poisoned by eating chips of lead-based paint. However, it was only recently documented that they are also at risk of poisoning from exposure to lead dust in household air. Lead dust particles can become airborne when surfaces covered with lead-based paint are scraped, sanded, or heated with an open flame during paint stripping. Lead dust can also be created by the rubbing and sliding of lead-base-painted window sashes as they open and close.
Lead dust can be inhaled when airborne. When the dust settles on the floor, windowsills, or furniture, it can be ingested by children through their normal hand-to-mouth behavior. Also, settled lead dust particles can become airborne as a result of household cleaning. The particles, which are very fine, can penetrate the filter system of home vacuums and are recirculated in the exhaust airstream. Cleaning of lead dust should be done by a professional who specializes in lead abatement.
The only way to tell whether the paint in a home contains lead is to have samples from different areas tested, such as windowsills, door trim, radiators, banisters, and walls where the paint may be peeling and flaking. Testing by a qualified laboratory is considerably more accurate than using a do-it-yourself kit. Many of these kits aren’t very precise, since other metals can cause false-positive results. They are not sensitive to low levels of lead, so that a sample might test negative and still be considered hazardous. Also, the kits cannot tell how much lead is in the paint. According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), action should be taken to reduce exposure to lead when the lead content in the paint exceeds 0.5 percent. Measures to reduce exposure to lead are particularly important when the paint is deteriorating or when infants, young children, or pregnant women are present.
If you are planning on buying a house that has lead-painted walls and trim, you have several options not unlike those for asbestos. If it is in good condition and there is little possibility that it will be eaten by children, then leave it undisturbed. If there are damaged or deteriorating sections of paint on the walls or ceilings, you can have those areas covered over with gypsum wallboard or some other building material.
You can also have the lead-based paint removed. This task, however, must be done by professionals trained in removing lead-based paint, since each of the paint-removal methods (sanding, scraping, chemical paint stripping, and heat guns) can produce lead dust or fumes. If not done properly, this option will create a greater health hazard than the original one. In some cases, complete removal and replacement of items such as windows, doors, and wall and door trim might be the best approach because of the cost or difficulty of removing the paint. This task should also be done by professionals, who will control, contain, and remove the lead dust.
If a surface that has been painted with a lead-based paint is intact, painting it with a non-leaded paint is considered a viable method of reducing the hazard associated with lead paint. However, painting the surface is not considered a permanent or long-term solution because the lead-based paint below the top coat might eventually loosen and create lead flakes and dust. Before undertaking any abatement procedures, you should have a qualified lead inspector do a lead hazard risk analysis and have him develop an abatement strategy that considers all the options.
Because awareness of the pervasive nature of the lead-dust problem is relatively recent, there is currently a lack of qualified lead inspectors and abatement contractors. However, a number of states are in the process of implementing certification, licensing, or training requirements for abatement contractors. Also, HUD has prepared and published guidelines for identification and abatement of lead-based paint hazards. To find a qualified lead inspector or abatement contractor, check with your state department of health or environmental agency. In those states that have not implemented certification procedures, you might still be able to find qualified inspectors and contractors. Certified lead-abatement training courses are available in Massachusetts and Maryland. A number of companies, including asbestos-abatement contractors from other states, have taken these courses and listed their companies in the telephone yellow pages under the overall heading of “Lead Paint” with subheadings “Inspection” and “Abatement.”