Lead in Your Home: How to Safely Identify Issues and Avoid Exposure
There are many thousands of homes that contain lead in some quantity, and this can present a serious health problem at times. Lead was banned in home construction decades ago, but older homes may still have it. Although lead poisoning can present itself quickly, it may be months or even years before people realize that they have an issue. In addition, households that do not know they could have lead contamination may not think to look to it as a possible cause.
A high accumulation of lead in the body damages red blood cells and constricts the flow of oxygen, which can result in a number of health conditions. Lead poisoning is particularly dangerous for young children and pregnant women, as lead can inhibit development. In the worst cases, it can even be fatal.
Fortunately, households have a number of ways that they can cultivate a better understanding of their risk of lead exposure. If people suspect that they may have a problem, they should not delay gaining a clearer picture of the lead contamination on the property. Quick action may help people know where lead may be present in their homes, as well as what they can do to mitigate the damage.
Signs a Home May Have a Lead Issue
Older Home (Pre-1978)
Vintage House With Lead Issue
Construction industry standards change over time, as experts learn more about the health effects resulting from certain materials. When buying a new construction home, you won't typically won't need to worry about things like lead or asbestos. Although it is outlawed for construction now, for centuries, builders and other construction professionals used lead in certain aspects of the home. Lead is a naturally-occurring metal that is abundant in quantity. People liked it as a building material because it is durable and resistant to moisture. In fact, the use of lead dates back so far that the word “plumber” derives from the Latin word for lead.
Given thousands of years of use, it took a long time for researchers to understand the problems prolonged exposure creates in the home. It was not until the late 1970s that the U.S. banned the use of lead in certain building and plumbing materials. Some states had already taken this step by then. Homes built prior to that may have lead pipes for plumbing, or lead paint on the walls. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that nearly nine in 10 homes built before 1940 will have lead paint somewhere on the structure. By comparison, perhaps only a quarter of homes built in the 1970s will have it.
People with properties dating back to 1978 or earlier should not assume that the problem should be resolved by now. Even when buying a luxury home built, one should not assume lead was not used in some capacity during construction. When plumbers replace a line, they do not always remove the old pipework. Residents typically do not remove paint before adding a new color. Old lead paint may be covered under several layers of fresh paint.
Lead Exposure Symptoms Lead can be inhaled, but it is most commonly consumed by mouth. Since it is a common element, people may ingest a small amount of lead despite their best efforts to avoid it. Lead exposure creates specific health problems for adults and children. It passes through the bloodstream and settles in the bones. These health issues can occur at almost any level, but tend to get worse for people who live in a home with lead paint or lead-contaminated drinking water.
When lead first starts to accumulate, people may feel tired or have nausea and headaches. These issues may become more serious if the source is not removed. Pregnant women may suffer miscarriages or infertility. Children exposed to lead during gestation or early life may encounter cognitive or developmental delays.
Without prompt care, many of these conditions could be permanent.
People should keep in mind that a lack of common signs of lead poisoning does not serve as proof that lead is not a problem on the property. Sometimes, symptoms can be so slight that people do not notice them until the issue has become quite severe. Since lead poisoning is so much more serious for children who may not be able to effectively communicate how they feel, parents may need to be proactive and investigate/inspect their home to catch and prevent lead exposure.
People who live in older homes have probably heard that lead paint is a common concern but might not know what to look for. Paint made of different materials can give a unique appearance over time. Paint with lead tends to “alligator” the older it gets. Alligatoring paint describes a process in which an oil-based paint or enamel is applied to a surface and degrades over time. The effect looks like an alligator’s scales. This does not necessarily mean that the paint is made with lead, however. Any oil-based paint can encounter this, especially if it is:
layered on a softer surface
applied before the bottom layer has dried
located in an area with extreme temperature fluctuation
If homeowners suspect that their home may have lead paint, alligatoring is a sign that they need to have it tested. As the paint cracks, it may chip or peel. This could make the paint easier to ingest by accident.
Where Lead Is Commonly Found in Homes Lead paint and lead pipes are a fairly familiar concept, but lead exposure can spread outward from these sources. In some cases, households may simply have to deal with a higher levels of lead naturally occurring on or near their properties. Otherwise, they should consider manmade items containing lead that could spread trouble inside and outside their homes.
On the property, old lead pipes can wreak havoc anywhere they come in contact with water. People have a tendency to leave pipes where they are, as long as they seem to be moving water appropriately. This means that some homes might have plumbing that is almost 100 years old. Lead leaches into the running water, but also spreads into the soil and groundwater. People living in newer homes built on old properties that still have lead pipes underground may ingest lead from produce grown in that soil or watered from the ground.
Inside the home, lead pipes can carry contaminated water that households use for cooking, washing or drinking. Lead paint can turn to dust that children consume by touching their hands to their mouths. This can occur do to improper remediation or repeatedly opening and closing windows with lead painted sills. Any surface that infants and young children may chew on, such as a windowsill, should be considered a likely problem in a home with lead paint. Paint chips and lead from the soil can fall to the flooring as dust that people can ingest or inhale. Old jewelry or glassware handed down as family heirlooms may contain lead. These items should not be used to prepare or serve food.