It has been 25 years since the federal government told paint manufacturers to reduce the lead content of paint to a trace 0.06 percent. But more than 75 percent of all homes in the United States - about 42 million built before 1978 - contain a greater amount of lead contaminants.

It was not until 14 years after the ban that the government finally recognized that contaminated dust from lead-based paint was the primary cause of lead poisoning in children. The Residential Lead-Based Paint Reduction Act, which became law in 1992, established standards and programs to rid housing of lead-based contaminants.

The results are that there are 26 million fewer homes with lead-based paint since the legislation was enacted, according to the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Federal funding for lead hazard-control work in private housing is being used in 250 areas nationwide.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that the average amount of lead in children's blood declined by 25 percent between 1996 and 1999.

In 1978, there were three million to four million children in the United States with elevated levels of lead in their blood. In the 1990s, that number had dropped to 890,000, and it continues to decline. A high level of lead exposure - more than 69 micrograms per deciliter - can result in convulsion, coma and death.

Even low-level exposure affects the central nervous system, especially in developmental stages, and can alter intelligence, motor control, hearing and emotional development of a child under age 6, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Children's blood-lead levels tend to increase rapidly from 6 to 12 months of age, and tend to peak at 18 to 24 months.

Parents should consult a doctor for advice. A simple blood test can detect high levels of lead, and testing is important for children at ages 1 and 2 and older children and other family members who have been exposed.

How does one test for high lead levels in the house? Obviously, there are signs. Peeling, chipping, chalking or cracking lead-based paint is a hazard, and needs immediate attention.

Lead-based paint may also be a hazard when found on surfaces that children can chew or that get a lot of wear and tear, such as windows and windowsills, doors and door frames, stairs, railings and banisters, and porches and fences.

Lead-based paint in good condition is usually not a hazard. But lead dust is often invisible to the naked eye, and can form when lead-based paint is dry-scraped, dry-sanded, or heated.

Dust also forms when painted surfaces bump or rub together, such as opening and closing windows or doors. Lead chips and dust can get on surfaces and objects that people touch. Settled lead dust can reenter the air when people vacuum, sweep, or walk through it.

The EPA and the Consumer Products Safety Commission acknowledge that there are home testing kits available for about $10, yet both suggest that you do not rely exclusively on those tests.

One home test kit uses sodium sulfide solution, the product safety commission said. You place a drop of the solution on a paint chip. If lead is present, the chip slowly turns darker.

A more reliable test uses an X-ray fluorescence (XRF) machine to determine whether paint contains lead.

Still, this test is not always reliable either, according to the safety commission. It can cost $500 or more, depending on the size of the house and the number of readings needed (often 300 or more).

Laboratory testing tends to be the most reliable, the commission says. It can cost $20 to $50 per sample.

Here's how to do it: Use a sharp knife to cut through the edges of the sample paint. The lab should tell you the sample size needed, probably about 2 inches by 2 inches.

Lift off the paint with a clean putty knife, and put it into a container labeled with your name and the location in the house from which each paint sample was taken. Be sure to take a sample of all layers of paint, since only the lower layers may contain lead.

Wipe the surface and any paint dust with a wet cloth or paper towel, and discard the cloth or towel.

HUD says action to reduce exposure should be taken when the lead in paint is greater than 0.5 percent by lab testing or greater than 1.0 milligrams per square centimeter as determined by an XRF machine.

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