Health effects of lead
Lead is a soft metal that has known many applications over the years. It has been used widely since 5000 BC for application in metal products, cables and pipelines, but also in paints and pesticides. Lead is one out of four metals that have the most damaging effects on human health. It can enter the human body through uptake of food, water and air (dust).
Foods such as fruit, vegetables, meats, grains, seafood, soft drinks and wine may contain significant amounts of lead. Cigarette smoke also contains small amounts of lead.
Lead can enter drinking water through corrosion of pipes. This is more likely to happen when the water is slightly acidic. That is why public water treatment systems are now required to carry out pH-adjustments in water that will serve drinking purposes.
For as far as we know, lead fulfils no essential function in the human body, it can merely do harm after uptake from food, air or water.
Lead can cause several health effects, such as:
- Disruption of the biosynthesis of hemoglobin and anemia
- A rise in blood pressure
- Kidney damage
- Miscarriages and subtle abortions
- Disruption of nervous systems
- Brain damage
- Declined fertility of men through sperm damage
Children are especially susceptible to lead health effects including:
- Diminished learning abilities
- Behavioral disruptions, such as aggression, impulsive behavior and hyperactivity
Lead can enter a fetus through the placenta of the mother. Because of this it can cause serious damage to the nervous system and the brains of unborn children.
Your home could have a number of potential sources of lead, but you may not be aware of some of them. Please scan through all of the sources to get the information that fits your home.
The most common sources of lead in your home could be:
Lead-based paint can be one of the most common sources of lead in homes. Lead-based paint for residential use was banned in 1978. Many homes built before that year have layers of older lead-based paint underneath newer paint layers. The main reason that lead was added to paint before 1978 was to make the paint last longer. Lead-based paint was used most heavily before the 1950's.
When lead-based paint deteriorates, it can create lead hazards. One obvious sign is chipping or peeling paint. Children can then swallow these paint chips and become exposed. Deteriorating paint can also create lead dust. Lead dust isn't always visible, but it can get on children's hands and toys and eventually make its way into their mouths. If you're concerned that this might be happening, you can have your child tested for lead.
Doors and windows painted with lead-based paint can create lead dust as they are opened and closed. Floors and stairs painted with lead-based paint can have chipping paint and lead dust created by the impact of people's feet. Older items of furniture, such as tables or baby cribs, were sometimes painted with lead paint. Furniture with lead paint can be hazardous to children.
Paint and dust can be tested by sending samples to a laboratory or by hiring a certified professional. Doing a visual assessment of your home (see below) can help you identify spots that should be tested. Home lead tests are available, but their results are more qualitative than the methods mentioned above.
According to HUD and the California Department of Health Services, the standard for lead-based paint is 5000 ppm (by laboratory analysis) or 1.0 mg/square centimeter (by XRF analysis). Even paint that doesn't meet this standard as lead-based paint can still have some lead in it. That means that lead hazards can still be created if work that disturbs paint isn't done in a lead-safe manner.
If you own a home or apartment building built before 1978 in Alameda, Berkeley, Emeryville or Oakland, there are free services available to help prevent and address lead hazards. The safest approach to lead-based paint is to keep the paint on the inside and outside of your home intact. When repainting and touch ups are necessary, use lead-safe painting strategies. Dry scraping, sanding and burning paint are NOT lead-safe. Proper containment is critical.
Mopping regularly and wiping down horizontal surfaces like window sills are key activities in maintaining a lead-safe home. This type of regular cleaning removes invisible lead dust that could harm young children.
Visual assessments are conducted to locate potential lead-based paint hazards and evaluate the magnitude of the hazards.
Assessments should identify:
- deteriorating painted surfaces
- areas of visible dust accumulation
- areas of bare soil
- painted surfaces that are impact points or subject to friction
- painted surfaces on which a child may have chewed
Information from the visual assessment should be used to:
- determine where environmental samples will be collected
- define in a preliminary way the extent of the lead hazard control efforts needed
- predict the efficacy of the various hazard control options given current maintenance practices
- determine housing conditions (such as water leaks) that, if not corrected, could lead to paint deterioration
Lead in soil is a lesser-known but equally critical cause of lead poisoning in children. Lead has made its way into the soil around some homes through two routes: paint and environmental emissions. Deteriorating exterior lead-based paint can fall off of a house if the paint is chipping, peeling severely or from friction surfaces such as windows. If exterior repainting is done improperly, lead-based paint can also fall into soil if the paint is scraped or sanded off of the house during prep work. That's why using lead-safe painting practices and proper containment methods is vital. Old homes which have had their exteriors painted repeatedly over time often have high levels of lead in the soil around the perimeter of the home.
Some lead in soil comes from the period before lead in gasoline was banned. During this period, lead came out of cars in the exhaust and would settle into the soil close to highways and major cross streets.
Homes located in industrial areas sometimes have lead in the soil from industrial emissions.
Children love to play outside, and many like to play in the dirt. When kids play in the dirt, they inevitably get their hands and toys dirty. If hands or toys with lead-contaminated soil on them make their way into a child's mouth, then the child can be exposed. This can easily happen through normal hand to mouth behavior. It's important to wash children's hands frequently, especially before eating. Toys should also be washed periodically.
Soil can be tested by sending a sample to a laboratory or by hiring a certified professional. According to Cal-EPA, lead levels that are equal to or above 400 ppm in bare soil are considered hazardous for children. Lead levels that are equal to or above 1000 PPM are considered hazardous for adults.
If your soil has lead or if you're just not sure, the most common approach to soil is to create a barrier between the soil and your child. There are a number of ways to create these kinds of barriers. Some of these include using grass, tanbark or concrete. These are just a few of the lead hazard reduction strategies for soil.
Click here for additional information on lead-safe gardening tips.
Protection by Washing Fruits and Vegetables
One of the main ways to protect your family from the effects of lead is to wash dust and dirt from fruits and vegetables, especially those grown at home, before eating them.
When preparing any fresh produce, begin with clean hands. Wash your hands for 20 seconds with warm water and soap before and after preparation.
Cut away any damaged or bruised areas on fresh fruits and vegetables before preparing and/or eating. Produce that looks rotten should be discarded.
All produce should be thoroughly washed before eating. This includes produce grown conventionally or organically at home, or produce that is purchased from a grocery store or farmer's market. Wash fruits and vegetables under running water just before eating, cutting or cooking.
Even if you plan to peel the produce before eating, it is still important to wash it first.
Washing fruits and vegetables with soap or detergent or using commercial produce washes is not recommended.
Scrub firm produce, such as melons and cucumbers, with a clean produce brush.
Drying produce with a clean cloth towel or paper towel may further reduce bacteria that may be present.