Lead Contamination in the Home

By The Old House Web
Judith A. Wessel

Lead from different sources such as from lead-based paint, gasoline,and solder may enter the body through air, food, water, dust, andsoil. Lead poisoning is a threat, especially to young children. Forpreschool children the most widespread and dangerous high-dose sourceof lead exposure is lead-based paint. Throughout the 1940's and1950's lead-based paint was in widespread use. It continued to beused in lower concentrations until the mid-1970's. The manufacture ofpaint containing high concentrations of lead for interior andexterior residential surfaces, toys, and furniture was banned in 1978by the Consumer Product Safety Commission. Lead-based paint, however,is still available for industrial, military and marine use andoccasionally ends up being used in homes.

Lead-Based Paint

Paint with high lead content is estimated to be in 74 percent of allhousing built before 1980. Those housing units containingdeteriorating lead-based paint are the major concern. Of even greaterconcern is these homes that have young children as occupants. Whenlead-based paint on surfaces is broken, sanded, or scraped, it breaksinto tiny, sometimes invisible, pieces that children may swallow orinhale.

Pica, a craving for unnatural food, is one way young children areexposed to lead when they eat tiny pieces of peeling or chippinglead-based paint. A child does not have to eat paint chips, however,to become poisoned. More commonly, children ingest dust and soilcontaminated with lead from paint that flakes or chalks as it ages.Lead dust can settle on floors, walls, and furniture. Settled leaddust can reenter the air through cleaning, such as vacuuming orsweeping, or by movement of people throughout the house.Lead-contaminated house dust, ingested via normal repetitivehand-to-mouth activity, is now recognized as a major contributor tolead poisoning in children. Adults can also be exposed to lead in thesame ways.

The risk of lead poisoning is related to both the presence and thecondition of the paint. Lead-based paint is typically found onkitchen and bathroom walls. Pre-1950 homes may have lead-based paintthroughout on doors, windows, and wooden trim. The risks of leadpoisoning are greater when lead-based paint has deteriorated or whenlead-based paint (even intact paint) is located on surfacesaccessible to children. Lead-based paint on interior and exteriorwindows is particularly of concern because it is abraded into dust bythe repeated opening and closing of the windows.

Childhood lead poisoning can result from renovation or remodeling ofhomes when lead dust is generated by sanding, scraping or heatinglead-based paint. Before older homes undergo any renovation that maygenerate dust, they should be tested for the presence of lead-basedpaint. If such paint is found, contractors experienced in workingwith lead-based paint should do the renovation. Lead-based paint ingood condition is not usually a problem except in places wherepainted surfaces rub against each other and create dust. Children orpregnant women should not be present on property that is beingrenovated or remodeled.

Occupations and Hobbies

Possible Sources of Lead

A variety of work and hobby environments expose people to lead andmay result in lead exposures to the family. You may unknowingly bringlead into your home on your hands or clothes. Precautions are neededif you work in construction, demolition or painting; with batteries;in a radiator repair shop or lead factory; or if your occupation orhobby involves furniture refinishing or making leaded stained glass.Other activities that may be associated with lead exposure includehome repairs and remodeling, and making pottery. Lead can also bebrought into the house from outside soil. Other places to be aware oflead exposure include: clothes from anybody who works with lead orlead paint, tap water from lead soldered pipes, drapery and windowweights, fishing sinkers, some folk medicines and some importedpottery.

Ways to Reduce Lead Exposure in the Home

Protect Children

  • Always have children wash their hands before meals, snacks, nap time and bedtime.
  • Keep children away from chipping, peeling and flaking paint.
  • Keep the areas where children play as dust-free as possible.
  • Do not allow children to chew or suck on painted surfaces such as painted window sills, cribs, playpens, or old painted toys.
  • Provide clean pacifiers for infants to suck.
  • Wash pacifiers often and pin them on a short ribbon to the child's shirt.
  • Keep children's clothes clean by changing frequently.
  • Inside, place a clean blanket on the floor or carpet for babies to play on. (Always keep the same side up and wash often).
  • Wash toys and stuffed animals regularly.

Cleaning Procedures to Reduce Lead Dust in Your House

  • Because ordinary vacuuming or sweeping spreads lead dust, always clean up dust and paint chips with wet mops or rags. Sponge mops work better than rag or string mops. When sweeping, drag dust with a damp broom.
  • Clean surfaces such as window sills and wells by wiping with a wet rag wrung from a warm water solution containing 1/4 cup of a high phosphate cleaner (such as trisodium phosphate, (check label for at least 6 percent phosphate content) available through hardware or paint stores) or an automatic dishwasher detergent with phosphate content above 6 percent (such as All(r), Cascade(r), Electrasol(r) and Sunlight(r)) to one gallon water.To avoid possible skin irritation, wear rubber gloves. Multipurpose cleaners do not contain phosphates and are not effective in cleaning lead dust. Wash mops thoroughly after each use to prevent recontamination of cleaned surfaces. Do this twice a week. Dispose of rags after use.
  • If wooden window frames are badly chipping, keep the bottom half closed and open the top half for fresh air.
  • Throw out old, soiled carpets or cover with a clean area rug (machine washable are best).
  • If you work with lead, wash work clothes separately from family wash.

Leave Lead Outside

  • Shake rugs, pillows, blankets and change vacuum bags outdoors away from the entry (not indoors).
  • If you work with lead, leave it at work. Shower, wash hair and change clothes and shoes before returning home. If laundering clothes at home, do separately.
  • Use an outdoor mat to wipe shoes or feet before entering the house. Thoroughly clean or replace mat twice a year. Take off your shoes at the door.
  • Pets may be carriers of lead dust. Brush outside when possible.

Temporary Repairs

  • Wherever there is loose or flaking lead-based paint, do not attemptto remove it yourself, except to damp mop it off the floor. Call yourlocal health department for lead paint removal advice.

Testing for Lead

With homes built in the 1950's or earlier, it is reasonable to assumethat the house has lead paint. Therefore, it may be cheaper toperform any renovation work under the assumption that lead paint ispresent than to test for it in advance. Contact your local publichealth organization for information on lead inspection services andtesting laboratories in your area. To receive a list of certifiedlaboratories, call the National Lead Information Center Clearinghouseat 1-800-424-LEAD.

Paint Chip Testing

Paint can be tested for the presence of lead by sending paint chipsto a certified lab for wet chemical analysis. Try to take yoursamples from peeling and chipping areas. Avoid surfaces that haveintact paint. Paint chips can be sent to the Ohio Department ofHealth Lab in Columbus. There is a charge of $20 per sample as of1/94. Each sample should include approximately a tablespoon of paintchips, be individually packaged in a plastic bag or envelope andlabeled as to location in the home and name and address of person toreceive results. Several samples can be sent together with a requestfor analysis for lead content. Send the samples to: Ohio Departmentof Health Laboratories P.O. Box 5268 Columbus, OH 43216 ATTN.:Environmental Chemistry.

Lead in Household Dust

The recommended sampling method for dust is the surface wet wipe.Dust samples are collected from different surfaces, such as windowsills, window wells and bare floors. Each sample is collected from ameasured surface area using a wet wipe, which is sent to a laboratoryfor testing.

A professional testing company can come into your home and useportable x-ray fluorescence that analyzes several layers of paint andprovides immediate results. Because the testing device is a complexpiece of equipment, for reliable results, it must be operated bytrained technicians. Home test kits are available at local hardwarestores, but may not give accurate results.

For More Information

National Lead Information Center
Available 24-hours a day, seven days a week in English and Spanish.

Lead Free Kids, Inc.
110 E. 31st Street, Box 8595
Minneapolis, MN 55408-0595


Centers for Disease Control. (1991), Preventing lead poisoning inyoung children, Atlanta, GA: U.S. Department of Health and HumanServices.

Childhood lead poisoning prevention: a resource directory, (2nd Ed.),(1991), National Center for Education in Maternal and Child Health,38th and R Sts., NW, Washington, DC 20057.

Columbus Health Department, Childhood lead poisoning preventionprogram, Columbus, OH

Greeley, Alexandra. (1991), "Getting the lead out...of just abouteverything," FDA CONSUMER. Rockville, MD: Food and DrugAdministration.

Redabaugh, S. and Laquatra, J. (1993), Lead exposure in the home,Ithaca, NY: Cornell Cooperative Extension.

Redabaugh, S. and Laquatra, J. (1993), Lead: A home remodelinghazard, Ithaca, NY: Cornell Cooperative Extension.

U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, (1990), What you should knowabout lead-based paint in your home, (1990-726-058), Washington D.C.:U.S. Government Printing Office.

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, (1992), Lead poisoning andyour children, (800-B-92-0002), Washington D.C.: Office of PollutionPrevention and Toxics.

Trade names are used for educational purposes only and with theunderstanding that no dsicrimination is intended nor endormentimplied.

This story was originally published by Ohio State University Extension

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