Although toxic mold has been taking the center stage lately, the issue of lead-based paint is still of great concern to real estate agents and homeowners alike.

What brought the issue back to me was a pamphlet "Protect Your Family from Lead in Your Home," produced by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, that my real estate agent handed us as we began the process of buying our latest house last November.

Under Title X of the Housing and Community Development Act of 1992, "every purchaser of any interest in residential real property on which a residential dwelling was built prior to 1978" has to receive and sign off on a seller disclosure of potential lead-based paint or lead-based paint hazards. The pamphlet is part of the deal.

For 14 years, my family lived in a house built in 1904. During my younger son's regular visit to the pediatrician when he was only three, his lead test exceeded federal guidelines -- not dangerously so, but enough that, until age 7, we had him tested twice a year to make sure.

Children six years and younger are the most susceptible to lead poisoning, since a growing body in need of minerals doesn't distinguish good from bad and will absorb lead in the same way it absorbs calcium.

High levels of lead, if not detected, can result in damage to the brain and nervous system, behavior and learning problems, slowed growth, hearing problems and headaches.

Fortunately, my son has never experienced those problems. But there are untold numbers of horror stories about children who have.

Adults are not immune to health problems related to lead-based paint. Difficult pregnancies can be attributed to lead, as well as reproductive problems in both men and women, high blood pressure, digestive problems, nerve disorders, memory and concentration and muscle and joint pain.

A surgeon I know restored a house that was built in 1808. Because there was a lot of paint-scraping, a lead test every six months at the hospital in which he worked was part of his routine.

From the mid-19th century to 1978, lead was used as an additive in paint after a Philadelphia manufacturer discovered that it helped the liquid better adhere to surfaces. Paint companies added it to especially high quality and thus expensive paints for the next 125 or so years, until it was linked to health defects.

Not all lead-based paint is hazardous. But you can bet your last dollar that any paint in a house built before 1978 that is peeling, chipping, chalking or cracking is a hazard and should be dealt with quickly.

If lead-based paint was used on windows or doors and door frames, the friction that you create between these surfaces when you open and close the doors and windows can emit lead dust. In fact, heavy use of stairs and railings can have the same effect.

I spent five years scraping every inch of the exterior of my former house, which, because of its age, certainly contained lead dust. Although I took great precautions including wearing a mask specifically designed for handling potentially hazardous substances and disposing of paint residue according to federal and local guidelines, I can't be absolutely certain that exposure won't come back to haunt me as I age.

Lead dust can get everywhere with little effort. Settled dust can re-enter the air when you vacuum, sweep or even walk though it.

Lead finds its way into the soil around your house, and you can bring it into the house on the soles of your shoes. Some that lead is the additive from paint, but some also has been attributed to gasoline with the lead additive that too has been banned but may have found its way from older cars to soil over the many years it was used.

How do you determine whether your house has these lead hazards?

According to the EPA, a paint inspection tells you the lead content of every painted surface in your house. However, a risk assessment will tell you if there are any sources of serious lead exposure (such as peeling paint and lead dust. It also tells you what action to take to address these hazards.

Although there are kits available for lead testing, the EPA suggests that hiring qualified professionals to test for lead and then remediate if necessary. Some states have regulations and licensing in procedures in place for such companies.

For more information, visit the National Lead Information Center web site or call 1-800-532-3394.

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