The dangers of lead exposure

Learn common sources of lead and what you can do to minimize the risk for yourself and family members developing lead poisoning.

If you took high school chemistry, you likely learned about the periodic table, a table that listed all chemical elements found in nature, including lead. What you probably didn’t learn in that class was how poisonous lead can be to humans and other animals. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), there are 24 million homes in the United States today where residents are being exposed to high levels of lead.

Four million of those households contain young children. Because of their tendency to put their hands and other objects into their mouths, children under 6 years old are considered to be the age group at highest risk. The CDC estimates half a million U.S. children ages 1-5 have blood lead levels above the recommended maximum of 5 microgram per deciliter.  

What are the typical sources of lead exposure in the United States today?  Lead-based paint was likely used in homes and other buildings constructed before 1978. If those surfaces have since been painted over with lead-free paint and the paint is in good shape, the earlier paint may not be a hazard. However, if paint is peeling, chipping, cracking or deteriorating in another way, immediate action needs to be taken. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) offers an extensive list of sources of lead that typically occur in older homes and steps to reduce your lead exposure including tips for maintaining and cleaning your home if lead-painted surfaces do exist.

 In addition to pre-1978 house paint, lead can also be found in drinking water, soil, and products such as painted toys and jewelry, cosmetics, folk remedies, and hobby equipment. Parents may unsuspectingly create lead exposure returning home from a job site where their clothing, shoes, and even skin come in contact with lead. Again, the EPA offers suggestion about how to address each of these possible sources of lead contamination. You may want to download their 19-page pamphlet that explains the dangers associated with lead exposure and how to protect your family from lead hazards.

If you are planning any renovations or repairs, make sure to follow their guidelines. If you suspect your home contains lead-based products, you may want to obtain the services of a certified professional to conduct a paint inspection, a more comprehensive risk assessment, and have your drinking water tested. Check the Michigan Department of Community Health website for assistance in finding certified professionals to complete these tasks.

Government officials take the matter of lead exposure very seriously. In fact, Congress passed the Residential Lead-Based Paint Hazard Reduction Act of 1992 that requires sellers and landlords provide an EPA-approved informational pamphlet and disclose any known lead-based hazards when selling or leasing housing built before 1978.

Even if your home is free of lead-based paint, think about the other places your child spends a good portion of their day including schools, day care facilities, a relative’s home, etc. Again, if these structures were constructed before 1978, make sure that they have taken steps to significantly reduce or completely eliminate lead exposure hazards.

 Michigan State University Extension also recognizes the health hazards associated with lead exposure. Visit their online bookstore to obtain a copy of Extension bulletin WQ51, Home*A*Syst, a handy self-assessment guide that can be used to evaluate your home and property to identify possible sources of contamination and health risk. Chapter 4 specifically addresses lead exposure. If you have additional questions, you may contact your local Extension office or pose your question online that will be answered by an Extension staff member from one of the many Extension universities across the United States.

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