Lead In Homes

Author: Andrew Watson


What Is Lead?
Lead is a naturally occurring chemical element that is found deep within the earth. It is one of the earliest metals used by humans, due to its low melting point and pliability.  Thousands of years ago, the Romans used lead to make multiple items like coins, dishes, weapons, and plumbing. The current term plumbing actually comes from the Latin word plumbum, which means lead. Even at that time, the Romans knew lead was dangerous and tried to limit their exposure. 

Where Will I Find Lead?
Even though lead was banned from residential use in 1978 by the Environmental Protection Agency, it is still found in many US homes. Whether it is in the pipes that deliver water to your house, or in the paint that covers your walls, lead is still around and is something that should be on your mind. Homes built prior to 1955 can have up to 50 percent lead in the original paint! Old paint that has chipped off of the exterior of a house will increase the amount of lead in the soil. Leaded gasoline from before the 1996 ban can still be found in old tanks. Furniture that was passed down from Grandma is likely to have lead in varnish. Even the dust in the air of a house being remodeled can introduce lead into your lungs. 


How Can Lead Affect Me?
The negative effects of lead are not always immediate. It can take months or years before you attribute your health issues to high levels of lead. Children are most susceptible. For one thing, small children are more likely to put things that they are not supposed to into their mouths. Whether they are trying to eat a chip of paint off the floor or the leg of the antique table, they just don't know any better! Children absorb lead more quickly than adults and it stays in their soft tissue for a longer amount of time. Lead exposure in children can cause slow growth, speech problems, hyperactivity, brain damage, and more. Pregnant women who are exposed to high levels of lead have had documented effects on their unborn babies, including damage to their central nervous system or to their brain. Adults can often have recurring, chronic headaches, as well as other symptoms when exposed to lead. Although the current "acceptable" limit is 10 micrograms per deciliter of blood, lead has no satisfactory threshold for being considered safe.

How Can I Limit My Exposure To Lead?
If you have a house built before 1978, there is a good chance that house contains lead and you may not be able to completely get rid of it. You can, however, limit your exposure. If the pipes that supply your water are made of lead, running cold water from the tap for 15-30 seconds prior to using it for drinking or boiling can make it much safer. Hot water will absorb more of the lead from the pipes. You can't see, smell or taste lead and boiling water will not get rid of it. If you have lead in your paint and it is in pristine condition, it should be left undisturbed, as it is typically not a hazard. Attempting to remove lead paint in good condition can cause more harm than good. Lead paint in poor condition becomes friable and can be easily inhaled as a dust. If you are remodeling a house built prior to 1978 and disturbing more than 6 square feet of the interior or 20 square feet of the exterior, the EPA requires the work to be performed by a company that is Lead-Safe Certified.  Home test kits to measure levels of lead are not always accurate and testing should be performed by a licensed professional. Sweeping or vacuuming in a house containing lead could make problems worse by stirring up the air. Cleaning should be done with wet towels, soap, and water. A good way to limit lead in the body is to have a balanced diet. Minerals like calcium and iron, as well as Vitamin C, have been shown to lessen lead absorption. 

In today's housing market, people love the idea of buying an older house and fixing it up. However, renovating an older house may mean more than just adding another bathroom or replacing the knob-and-tube electrical wiring. Even the minor homeowner tasks like repainting the siding may come with a hefty price if your house contains lead. Taking everything into account, homes with lead can still be completely livable, although more caution must be exercised. You have to know what you're dealing with. Make sure you don't ignore the facts and end up being led to the wrong decision.


Note: A home inspection company will not determine the existence of nor test for lead unless it is specifically advertised. This article is for informational purposes only and should not be considered conclusive. For more information regarding lead or lead poisoning, please visit https://www.epa.gov/lead