the house that lead built: what parents need to know

March 16, 2011

This is the house that lead built.

in jude's room

There is no peeling paint–

kitchen floor

there are no flaking paint-chips.

dining room

It's clean, well cared for, in excellent condition... and still we have the lead poisoning.

I thought that kids only got lead poisoning from eating paint. You know what I mean, the old "she's been eating paint chips" joke? Oh how little I knew about lead exposure. And if I knew little to nothing I'm betting that most of us parents are in the dark about it. So let's take a few minutes to go over the basics:

Homes built before 1970 may probably contain lead/lead paint.
Our house was built in 1875. You know who was president in 1875? Ulysses "The Robot" Grant. Our house was built before the shootout at OK Corral (1881) and long before they invented ring pops. That's uh... way old. Frankly it's always been something I loved about our house, cherished, not something that I was worried about. The old girl's seen some long days but she still shines... and she's also chock-full o' the lead. The more you know!

Old lead paint that is intact (not cracked, chipped, or peeling) is safe.
And if you've painted over it that's even better! Painting over it IS a viable solution in most cases.

We were aware our house is old and most likely contained lead paint when we bought it. Every house in our neighborhood is this way. So how did we go from "possibly contains lead paint" to "HAVING LEAD POISONING?!" (Ok, I can't give you a genuine answer to that one. They still don't know why. But I CAN list the common sources of home-lead exposure, and in a shocking turn of events it is not from eating paint chips.)

Most common sources of lead in the home:
Yes, that's right, dust. Tiny invisible dust that you can't see that floats around everywhere. When you have old lead paint and it gets a crack or a teeny-tiny chip it isn't the chip itself that causes the majority of the problems– it's the dust that comes out. This is our number one killer right here, that damned invisible dust that everything makes.

Renovating a room? Working on a light fixture? The dust up in your ceiling can be a major contamination area. I would never have figured this to be a serious source. Who knew?!

Doors and Doorways
The major source of the dreaded lead dust comes areas you pass through often and therefore are more prone to damage. Every time you brush past that little tiny chip in the doorway you're spreading dust through your house– and therefore spreading lead. Every place that your door sticks or rubs when you close it is another point where old lead can be escaping.

Windows and Windowsills
Thankfully, we have replacement windows. However old windowsills with peeling paint? Very bad. Imagine this– every time you open that window all the paint from around the edges that is damaged poofs out lead dust and the wind blows it right into your house. FUN!

If your house (or neighborhood) is quite old there's a good chance that the outside of the house was at one time painted with lead paint. Since previous generations didn't know lead paint was dangerous (those assholes!) they'd scrape it right off the side of the house onto the ground where it is now contaminating your soil. The foot or so around the edges of the house is especially dangerous.

Yes, even the water. This is not the most likely source but in older houses they often soldered the copper pipes together with lead, leeching lead into your water lines. Additionally in many cities older water mains are still made of lead underneath the streets. Thanks city!

(And of course there are still many other possible sources, like poorly manufactured toys, visiting your Grandma's infected house, buying antiques, etc. I'm just going to focus on the home, for those of us poor souls with old houses who had no idea what a big deal this could turn into.)

But... what can you do?
Get a blood test
Children who live in a older home should be tested at 12 months and 24 months. In fact here in my part of southern Ohio the test is pretty well standard for most kids. Lead is bad for adults too, sure, but it doesn't have the same effect on our brains as they're already developed. Lead intake peaks at 18 months, just as the put-everything-in-the-mouth stage is coming to an end, which makes perfect sense because...

They have to eat it to be exposed
Just touching it doesn't count, they have to consume the lead particles for it to take effect. Wipe off that pacifier that fell on the dusty floor, people! Or if you've got a thumbsucker (like we do) wash those hands! Clean off those teething toys! Don't let your kid gnaw on that wall!

Know the symptoms of lead poisoning
They include decreased appetite, irritability, cognitive delays, hyperactivity, and small size. Lead poisoning can lead to seizures and major brain damage if high enough and untreated. However just because there are no symptoms doesn't mean you're in the clear yet– Jude has none! Symptoms only appear at dangerously high levels but no level of lead is safe for children.

Test your home
For many people you won't need to go this far. But if your house is really old you may want to have it tested. "Official" type lead-testing like we are going through is insanely expensive (in the thousands of dollars when not provided by the city). There are home lead tests you can get at the hardware store that may give you some peace of mind. Keep in mind that we have lead in every room and out of 12 home lead tests only 2 showed results. Specialists don't put too much faith in them if you're dealing with a serious issue.

So you've got lead paint in the house:
1. Paint over it.
2. Be vigilant in watching for chips and tiny cracks, especially on doors, doorways, and windows.
3. Wash your hands and your child's hands often and especially before eating.
4. If a door is a problem area either leave it open or leave it closed, don't move it around.
5. Vacuum daily, preferably with a Hepa-filter vacuum. If your vacuum does not have a filter only vacuum when your child is away as it will kick up even more of that bastard dust.
6. Wet dust. Dry dusting (including the Swiffers I used to love so much) kicks up more dust than it removes. Wiping down everything with a wet cloth traps the particles so you can remove them.
7. Wet mop using a two bucket system– one for clean water, one for contaminated.
8. Mulch 8" around the edges of the house to cover up the dirt there. Avoiding playing near the side of the house.
9. Take off your shoes at the door. Lead can be present on roads, sidewalks, and in dirt. Don't track it into your home.
10. Have a separate pair of shoes for your child for "outside" play in the dirt, shoes which would ideally stay outside.
11. Run the water for 30-60 seconds before using it and use cold water, especially for cooking.
12. If you have a serious problem area or upcoming renovation project consider having a professional lead abatement team handle it. The cost is not so appealing– the alternative makes it worth it.
13. Eat a healthy diet high in calcium and iron.
14. And of course, don't let your kid eat paint chips. Though after reading all this I'll bet that's the least of your worries.

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