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Getting the Lead Out

Low-income families carry the heaviest burden of lead exposure. With the help of a chemistry class, that burden gets a little lighter.

July 01, 2003
July/August 2003
This article originally appeared in the July/August 2003 issue of Home Energy Magazine.
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        Margaret and Jon Sauser were ecstatic when they bought their quaint, almost 100-year-old house in Kalamazoo, Michigan.They were overflowing with creative ideas on how to renovate the structure to make it the ideal home for their growing family. Jon started sanding and refinishing the hardwood floors, stripping the paint, removing some of the interior walls, and installing new windows.After six months of renovation, Jon, Margaret, and Jonnie, their two-year-old son, eagerly moved in. For reasons that they did not understand at first, Jonnie’s behavior changed dramatically, and he was diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).A short time later, their second son, Cameron,was born.At 11 months, Cameron stopped growing.
        Knowing that something was tragically wrong, Margaret pleaded with her kid’s skeptical pediatrician to test the children for lead.They discovered that both kids had been lead poisoned in the “safety” of their own home.The amount of lead in each of the boys’ bodies was 2 1/2 times the action level set by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Unbeknownst to Margaret and Jon, their dream home was plumbed with lead pipes and had been covered with lead-based paint.The Sauser’s renovations had stirred up a significant amount of lead dust that would be slowly but steadily ingested by the family. Faced with mounting medical bills for the treatment of their sons’ development problems, and with no funds for making their home lead safe, the Sausers had to abandon their home.

Lead in Homes, and in Children


        Lead poisoning presents a serious environmental health problem that is entirely preventable.The CDC reports that nearly one million children living in the United States have lead levels in their blood that are high enough to cause irreversible damage to their health. Lead poisoning most seriously affects children under the age of six, because it is precisely at this age that a child’s neurological function is developing most rapidly. Even low levels of lead are harmful and can be associated with reduced intelligence, impaired behavioral development, decreased stature and growth, and hearing loss. The CDC has set 10 micrograms per deciliter [ìg/dl] as the upper limit for blood lead levels in children, but recent studies suggest that one-third that level can cause cognitive decline.
        In addition to removing lead from a child’s environment, blood lead levels can be reduced through a healthy diet containing low-fat foods high in iron, calcium, and vitamin C.When the amount of lead in a symptomatic child’s blood rises above 40 ìg/dl, immediate medical action, such as chelation therapy, is often warranted.
        The symptoms of adult lead poisoning can include kidney and neurological damage, anemia, hypertension, impotence, sterility, and miscarriages. Although adults are less susceptible than children are to lead poisoning, pregnant women should be cautioned that lead could pass through the placenta and irreversibly harm a developing fetus.
        The primary sources of lead in the home environment are deteriorating lead-based paint, lead-contaminated dust, and lead-infiltrated soil. Lead enters a child’s body when the child either directly eats paint chips (lead gives paint a sweet flavor) or ingests lead-contaminated dust or soil through normal handto- mouth contact.Additional sources of lead-contaminated dust can be associated with a family member who pursues a hobby (such as making stained glass windows, bullets, or fishing sinkers) or an occupation that involves exposure to lead.Recognizing the serious health risks posed by lead, the Consumer Product Safety Commission banned lead as a component in residential paint in 1978.
        A secondary source of lead in the home environment can be contaminated drinking water.Although lead pipes were commonly used in home construction before the early 1900s, it is rare to find lead fittings in homes built after 1970. Lead solder connections on copper pipes pose a much smaller risk. If a house contains lead pipes, the only way to completely eliminate the risk of lead poisoning is to have the plumbing replaced.As a temporary measure, one can reduce the concentration of lead in potable water by running the cold water tap for 60 seconds before drinking from a faucet.
        How prevalent is lead in the nation’s housing stock today? An extensive HUD survey conducted in 1998–2000 revealed that approximately 38 million of the 96 million permanently occupied, noninstitutional housing units in the United States have lead-based paint.An estimated 29 billion ft2 of painted exterior surfaces are currently covered with lead-based paint (see Figure 1).Although 40% of homes contain lead-based paint, as much as 26% of the nation’s housing units pose a significant lead exposure hazard, according to current HUD/EPA standards.A home environment is considered hazardous if it contains one or more of the following: lead-contaminated soil, interior lead-contaminated dust, or significantly deteriorated or chipping lead-based paint.
        Lead hazards can exist in any home, but data show that certain homes are more likely to pose a risk.The amount of lead in homes varies according to household income, the year the house was constructed, and the region of the country in which it is located (see Figure 2). It is clear that houses built before 1960 pose the greatest risk for dangerous lead exposure. In 1994, the CDC completed an extensive study examining the frequency of lead poisoning in children under the age of six. Poor children living in homes constructed before 1946 are at greatest risk (see Figure 3). African-American and Mexican-American families are disproportionately affected by the health hazards of lead exposure, because they are more likely to be living in older homes and rental properties that have not been renovated to lead-safe standards.

Making Homes Safe

        What can be done to identify and minimize the risk of lead exposure? In St. Joseph County, Indiana, a collection of nonprofit organizations, government agencies, and private companies have banded together to form a Get the Lead Out task force.The coalition works to inform the public about the dangers of lead, provides free blood screening for young children, and performs risk assessments in homes where children have tested positive for lead exposure.Through the Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) program administered through Memorial Hospital, nearly 2,000 children in the county are tested for lead each year. Approximately 6% of the children test positive for having blood lead levels above the CDC action limit of 10 ìg/dl.
        The University of Notre Dame has recently formed a unique partnership with member organizations in the Get the Lead Out task force.Advanced undergraduates can enroll in a course entitled Chemistry in Service of the Community and receive academic credit for their participation in the program. Students disseminate information on lead poisoning to low-income families living near campus and encourage parents to have their children tested for potential lead exposure.A portion of the families that Memorial Hospital identifies as having elevated lead levels are referred to the Notre Dame class for a detailed lead risk assessment.A risk assessment involves visual inspection of the home; collection of dust, paint, and soil samples to be analyzed later in one of Notre Dame’s chemistry labs; and on-site measurement of lead using an X-ray fluorescence (XRF) spectrometer.The spectrometer will detect the presence of lead on a wall, even if the lead is buried below many layers of nonlead-based paint.
        What constitutes a significant level of lead contamination? Federal guidelines define a lead paint hazard as deteriorated paint containing more than 650 ìg of lead per ft2 of painted area.The clearance standards for lead-contaminated dust are 40, 250, and 400 micrograms of lead per square foot for floors, windowsills, and window troughs, respectively.The lead hazard standards for soil are 400 ppm by weight in play areas and 1,200 ppm in other areas of the yard. State and local regulations can be more stringent than these federal guidelines, so check with local ordinances to find the action levels in your area.
        Approximately 80% of homes tested by Greentree Environmental Services, a member of the Get the Lead out task force, test positive for lead. In a recent risk assessment, the team of students and professionals discovered that a rented apartment occupied by a family with four young children had dangerously high levels of lead on the tread of the entrance stairwell, the painted front porch, and the casework around the entrance to the apartment building. Because these were areas frequented by the children, it was no surprise that during normal play activity, the kids were ingesting leadcontaminated dust that they picked up on their hands. In fact, prior blood tests had revealed that the two-year old daughter had a blood lead level equal to 26 ìg/dl, whereas her older sibling, who did not crawl around on the floor, had a lead level of just 3ìg/dl.
        After completing laboratory analysis of the dust and soil samples, the team of students and professionals returned to the home to share their findings with the tenants and the landlord.They discussed inexpensive ways to minimize the amount of lead-contaminated dust in the home.These included dusting regularly with a wet cloth or using a vacuum cleaner equipped with a high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filter.They also presented a longer-term solution—paint stabilization.The cost for paint stabiliza tion by a qualified contractor runs between $3,000 and $5,000 for an average- sized home, depending on the extent of contamination (see “Paint Stabilization”).

Training for Lead Safety

        What does it take to become a qualified contractor for lead-safe renovations? The new HUD regulations on lead hazard reduction requirements were released in September 1999.The Lead Safe Housing Rule places increased emphasis on reducing the risk of exposure to lead through dust, because this is the primary way that young children become lead poisoned. HUD has established two highquality training courses—one for landlords and one for contractors.Many participants in the courses are initially apprehensive about “the government trying to tell us how to do our jobs.”For the first 30 minutes, one often hears attendees saying,“This lead-paint thing is a bunch of bull. I have been doing this for 20 years and never had a problem.”Then their anger subsides, and they begin to think of their own children and whether they might have been exposed to lead risks. Their complaints are transformed into questions.“Why aren’t doctors trained to identify lead poisoning? My child is on Ritalin for hyperactivity. Do you think that he might be lead poisoned?”
        The remodeling and weatherization industries continually seek out innovations to improve energy conservation, safety, or efficiency. In the same way that we expect our doctors to stay up-todate with the latest technology or medical treatments,homeowners justifiably expect that their contractors will use lead-safe practices when weatherizing or remodeling a house (see “Lead-Safe Weatherization,” HE May/June ’03, p. 24).Homeowners have a right to receive a disclosure statement from their contractor informing them that lead-based paint may be disturbed during a job.They have a right to expect that this hazard will be contained, controlled, and removed upon job completion.This is the essence of HUD’s Lead Safe Housing Rule.
        Lead-safe practices include containing dust by laying down 6-mil plastic, 5 ft outside the work area on the interior and 10 ft outside the work area on the exterior, before you start working.Wet sanding must be used rather than conventional dry-sanding techniques. Maintaining a clean job site reduces injury, saves cleanup time at the end of the job, and eliminates complaints from the homeowner. Showing care and concern for your client’s family will win you a lifelong customer, and it can lead to valuable referrals.
        Contractors, landlords, and tenants sometimes resist attempts to educate them about the dangers of lead. If you are a skeptic, sit down with the parents of a lead-poisoned child and listen to their story. If you are still not convinced, speak to your attorney about the potential liability you face with regard to litigation by homeowners or your workers or both.Renovations conducted in the absence of lead-safe practices needlessly put many people at risk for contracting serious long-term health problems.
        In 2000, the President’s Task Force on Environmental Health Risks and Safety Risks to Children outlined a plan to virtually end childhood lead poisoning in America within ten years.The report estimates that by preventing the adverse effects of lead on children’s health and development, the long-term economic benefits will exceed the cost of the strategy by $8.9 billion.We can’t afford not to act.

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