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Testing for Lead

Children are particularly susceptible to lead poisoning. Once it enters the human body, lead is very slow to leave, so prolonged exposure to even very low levels has an accumulative effect. Lead poisoning typically affects the brain. Symptoms may include nausea, headache, fatigue, short attention span, and clumsiness. Prior to the 1970s, many homes were finished with paint that contained high levels of lead. As long as it remains on the wall, lead paint is not a problem. However, paint chips or dust, caused by flaking walls or two surfaces rubbing together (as with a sash window), are exceedingly poisonous if swallowed by a child.

A hardware store may carry a lead testing kit, which unfortunately is not guaranteed to be accurate. To be sure, hire a company to collect chips and send them to a lab for testing. If you have lead paint in sound condition, the solution may be simply to paint over it. Scraping or sanding will create dangerous dust and chips. If the paint is peeling or otherwise unsound, contact a company that specializes in lead abatement. A few older homes have lead pipes. A lead pipe is gray, and you can easily gouge it with a sharp object. In some older cities, the main supply pipe, which runs from the street to the house, is lead. Copper pipe installed before the 1970s may have joints held together with soldering that contains lead.

Some cities treat these problems by adding a trace element of phosphate to the water. This coats the lead pipes or joints so that virtually no lead leaches into drinking water. To be safe, however, contact your building department to see about having your water tested. To further ensure that there’s no lead in your drinking and cooking water, allow water to run for a minute or so before using it; water that has sat in pipes all night is more likely to pick up lead. Cook with cold water rather than hot water, which is also more likely to be contaminated. Until the 1970s, automobiles ran on gasoline that contained lead. Consequently, soil near a busy street may be contaminated. Simply keeping a house and clothing clean can go a long way toward eliminating the possibility of lead poisoning.

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