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Environmental Epidemiology

Lead

Facts About Lead

  • Lead exposure can harm babies before they are born
  • Children who seem healthy can have high levels of lead in their bodies
  • Peeling or chipping lead-based paint can be a health hazard
  • Hand-to-mouth behavior of young children makes them more at risk
  • Lead-based paint that is in good condition is generally not a health hazard
  • Lead can be brought home from work on your clothes and shoes
  • Prior to 1978, lead was used as an additive in gasoline
  • Some imported toys or jewelry may contain lead
  • Some ethnic foods or medicines contain harmful amounts of lead

What is Lead and Why Should I Be Concerned?

Lead is a naturally-occurring element found in rock ore with other metals.  Lead is processed by smelting the lead from the rock ore.  Lead is a toxic metal that was used for many years in products found in and around homes.  These products included lead-based paint, lead pipes, and leaded gasoline.  Lead has been removed from many household products.  Lead is still used in some commercial or industrial products.

Dutch Boy

The US government has banned lead as an additive in house paint since 1978.  Because many homes and buildings were constructed before 1978, effects from lead exposure remain a health issue.  The US Environmental Protection Agency has many additional resources available to help you learn about lead.  Visit the EPA Lead Awareness Program website for more information and publications in English and Spanish. You can also contact the National Lead Information Center at 1-800-424-LEAD (5323) for more information about lead.

Frequent exposure to high amounts of lead can cause a range of health effects, from behavioral problems and learning disabilities, to seizures and death.  Children six years old and younger are most at risk from lead exposure.


What are the Most Common Sources of Lead Poisoning?

  • Deteriorating lead-based paint
  • Lead contaminated dust or soil
  •   Old plumbing fixtures with lead pipe or solder
  • Imported toys, jewelry, or foods with lead
  • Some hobbies such as making stained glass or glazing pottery
  • Folk remedies that contain lead

How Can Lead get into My Body?

People can accidentally get lead into their body if they:

  • Put their hands or other objects with lead on them in their mouths,
  • Accidentally ingest lead-based paint
  • Work or play in soil that contains lead,
  • Breathe lead dust,
  • Eat products that contain lead, or
  • Drink water coming from old lead pipes.

What are the Health Effects of Lead?

If not detected early, children with high levels of lead in their bodies can suffer from:

  • Damage to the brain and nervous system
  • Behavior and learning problems, such as hyperactivity
  • Slowed growth
  • Hearing problems
  • Headaches
  • Poor muscle coordination
  • Decreased muscle and bone growth

Lead is harmful to adults, too.  Adults can suffer from:

  • Reproductive problems (in both men and women)
  • High blood pressure and hypertension
  • Nerve disorders
  • Digestive problems
  • Memory and concentration problems
  • Muscle and joint pain

Lead is more dangerous to babies and young children because their brains and nervous systems are more sensitive to the damaging effects of lead.  The growing bodies of children often absorb more lead than adults.  Because children often put their hands and other objects in their mouths, they are more at risk to lead exposure.  Once the brain is harmed by lead, the damage is often irreversible.  Often lead poisoning goes undetected because the initial signs are similar to common ailments. Make sure children eat healthy and nutritious meals as recommended by the National Dietary Guidelines.  Children with good diets absorb less lead.

Where might I Find Lead in my Home?

Many homes built before 1978 have lead-based paint.  The federal government banned lead-based paint from housing in 1978.  In general, the older your home, the more likely it has lead-based paint.  Lead-based paint may have been used inside or outside of an older home.  Peeling, chipping, or cracking lead-based paint may be a health hazard and needs immediate attention.  Check surfaces that children can chew on or that get a lot of wear-and-tear.  These surfaces include:

  • Windows and window sills,
  • oors and door frames,
  • Stairs, railings, and banisters,
  • Porches and fences,
  • Vinyl blinds, and
  • Toys.

Lead dust, which may be hard to see, can also be health hazard.  Lead dust can form when lead-based paint is dry scraped, dry sanded, or heated.  Dust also forms when painted surfaces bump or rub together.  Lead chips and dust can get on surfaces and objects that people touch.  Settled lead dust can re-enter the air when people vacuum, sweep, or walk through it.

Note that lead-based paint that is in good condition is usually not a health hazard.  As long as the painting surface is in good condition, it is ok paint over lead-based paint with new paint to cover it up.  This is safe and will help prevent the lead-based paint from becoming a problem.

Years ago non-glossy, vinyl mini-blinds were discovered to be a lead hazard, especially to young children.  Sunlight and heat would break down these blinds and could then release lead-contaminated dust.

Older homes might have old plumbing with lead pipes or lead solder.  Over time, small pieces of lead may break loose and get into the water.  You cannot see, smell, or taste lead in water.  Boiling water will not get rid of lead. If you think your plumbing has lead in it, then run the water for 15 to 30 seconds before drinking it.  Also, use only cold water for drinking and cooking.

Can I Bring Lead home from Work?

If you work with or around lead in your job, you can bring it home on your hands, clothes, or shoes.  After work you should shower and change clothes before going home.  Keep your work boots at work or in the trunk of your car.  Wash work clothes separately from the rest of your family's clothes.

Where else has Lead been Found?

Old toys or furniture might have been painted with lead-based paint.  Unfortunately, some new toys and jewelry were discovered to contain lead.  Lead was found in the paint, vinyl, or metal parts from toys and jewelry manufactured in China.  Stronger trade rules and corporate policies are working to keep lead out of toys sold in the United States.

Some folk remedies contain lead.  Products such as greta and azarcon have been used to treat an upset stomach.  These products contain lead and can be more harmful than helpful.  Also, some candies imported from Mexico have been found to contain dangerous amounts of lead, absorbed from the colorful candy wrappers. 

Some hobbies or arts-and-crafts use lead.  For example, lead is in fishing sinkers, stained glass, battery casings, and shotgun pellets.  Other hobbies that may use lead include making pottery, stained glass, or refinishing furniture.  Lead crystal or lead-glazed pottery should not be used for foods or liquids.

How Can I Check My Family for Lead Exposure?

A simple blood test can tell how much lead is in blood.  Because children are at greater risk from lead exposure, children up to six years old should have periodic blood lead tests performed by a family doctor or local health department.  Older children or adults can have blood lead tests performed as needed.  Most people have blood lead test results below 10 micrograms of lead per deciliter of blood (µg/dL).

What Can I Do to Protect My Family?

If you suspect that your house has lead hazards, you can do the following to reduce your family's risk:

  1. If you rent, notify your landlord of peeling or chipping paint.
  2. Clean up paint chips immediately.
  3. Clean floors, window frames, window sills, and other surfaces weekly.
  4. Wet clean with a mop, sponge, or towel using warm water and all-purpose cleaner.
  5. Thoroughly rinse sponges and mop heads after cleaning dirty or dusty areas.
  6. Wash children's hands often, especially before they eat or sleep.
  7. Keep play areas clean; regularly wash bottles, pacifiers, toys, and stuffed animals.
  8. Make sure children eat healthy and nutritious meals.

Certified Lead-Based Paint Abatement Program

The Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation has a program to ensure that persons who professionally cleanup lead-based paint are properly trained.  If you need to hire someone to cleanup lead-based paint in your home, school, or business, then they should be certified.  Contact the Lead-Based Paint Abatement Program for more information.  Tennessee offers a toll-free hotline at 1-888-771-LEAD (5323).

  When you hire a certified lead-based paint abatement professional it will help to ensure that lead cleanup work is done safely and effectively.

Lead-Based Paint Disclosure Program

Many houses and apartments built before 1978 have paint that contains lead.  Lead from paint, chips, and dust can pose a health hazard if not taken care of properly.  Federal law requires that individuals receive certain information before renting or buying pre-1978 housing.  The Residential Lead-Based Paint Disclosure Program mandates that:

LANDLORDS have to disclose known information on lead-based paint and lead-based paint hazards before leases take effect.  Leases must include a disclosure form about lead-based paint.

SELLERS have to disclose known information on lead-based paint and lead-based paint hazards before selling a house.  Sales contracts must include a disclosure form about lead-based paint.  Buyers have up to ten days to check for lead hazards.

For more information on the disclosure program visit this EPA website.

Renovating a Home Containing Lead-Based Paint

Beginning in April 2010, federal law will require that contractors performing renovation, repair and painting projects that disturb lead-based paint in homes, child care facilities, and schools built before 1978 must be certified and follow specific work practices to prevent lead contamination.  Until then, EPA recommends that anyone performing renovation, repair, and painting projects that disturb lead-based paint in pre-1978 homes, child care facilities, and schools follow lead-safe work practices.  Three simple procedures:  containing the work area, minimizing dust, and cleaning up thoroughly, will help prevent lead contamination.  Read more about requirements for renovation, repair, and painting on the EPA’s lead website.