Lead: the No. 1 Environmental Threat to Children: In 1991, the Secretary of the Department of Health and
Human services called lead “the number-one environmental
threat to the health of children in the United States.” The
leading source of lead exposure today is old lead-based
paint in homes built before 1960, although homes built until
1978 may also contain lead paint.
Other sources include
contaminated soil and drinking water that runs through old
lead piping. Hobby activities, such as soldering and stained-
glass making, can also introduce lead into the home.
Where two painted surfaces abrade, such as door and
window frames, lead dust can be released and later ingested
by children. High-level exposures leading to acute
illness can be created when lead-based paint is removed
by sanding, scraping, or open-flame burning.
around old houses can also contain high levels of lead from
paint scrapings over the years, and the soil around highways
can have high levels from leaded gasoline. Playing
in contaminated soil can be a threat to children, and contaminated
soil can also be tracked into homes, contributing
significantly to indoor levels.
Health Effects of Lead Exposure
Our photo (left) shows an antique food serving platter that contains high levels of lead.
Lead affects most systems of the body.
Even at low levels, harm to fetuses and young children can
Blood lead levels as low as 10 micrograms
per deciliter can impair mental and physical development,
leading to lower IQ levels, shortened attention spans,
and increased behavioral problems.
Lead is more easily
absorbed into the bodies of fetuses, infants, and children,
and they are more sensitive to the damaging effects. Also,
children often have higher exposures, since they are more
likely to get lead dust on their hands and then put their fingers
or other lead-contaminated objects into their mouths.
Acute exposures to high levels of lead generated from
remodeling activities can cause adverse health effects on
the central nervous system, kidney, and blood cells. At
very high levels (above 80 micrograms per deciliter of
blood), lead can cause convulsions, coma, and even death.
Guide to Reducing Exposure to Lead Hazards Indoors and in Drinking Water
Lead pipes in building water supply system
Our photo (left) shows the characteristic "wipe joint" that can help identify lead water supply piping at a building. See LEAD PIPES in BUILDINGS for details about this significant source of lead levels found in some people.
Since lead paint is the leading
cause of exposure, preventive measures focus on keeping
paint in good condition and cleaning up any lead-
containing dust before children are exposed.
homes with lead paint, experts recommend mopping floors
and wiping window ledges and other smooth flat areas
with damp cloths frequently, keeping children away
from areas where paint is chipped, peeling, or chalking and
preventing children from chewing on window sills and
other painted areas.
Also, ensure that toys are cleaned frequently
and hands are washed before meals. If the paint is
in poor condition, it should be removed by a licensed lead-
abatement professional. Recommendations include:
Keep areas where children play as dust-free and clean
Leave lead-based paint undisturbed if it is in good
condition; do not sand, scrape, or burn off paint that
may contain lead.
If the paint needs to be removed, hire a licensed
professional with training in lead abatement.
Do not bring contaminated soil or lead dust into the
If your work or hobby exposes you to lead, change
clothes and use doormats before entering your home.
Demolition and work along roads and highways are
Eat a balanced diet, rich in calcium and iron. A child
who eats enough iron and calcium will absorb less
Copper pipe joints soldered with high-lead solder: Lead in solder used to join copper water supply piping in older buildings can present a lead poisoning health hazard that varies by the extent of lead solder used, how the joints were soldered (did the installer push blobs of solder into the pipe interior), and the chemistry of water flowing through the pipes. Lead hazards associated with water piping are discussed in detail at LEAD PIPES in BUILDINGS.
Our photo (left) shows how a homeowner coped with a leak at a soldered (sweated) copper water supply pipe elbow that was difficult to reach for repair.
Watch out: OPINION: because soldering copper pipe fittings when using newer low-lead-content solder requires higher heat than the old high-lead solder, newer soldered joints can be messier-looking. But you should not rely on the physical appearance of a copper pipe connection to guess at its lead content, as the workmanship of individual plumbers varies widely, and a joint that was wiped clean during soldering looks neat and clean regardless of which solder type was used.
Test your copper plumbing for lead? To know if your copper pipe connections were soldered using a high-lead-content solder you can use an inexpensive lead test widely available online and at building suppliers.
You can also test building water itself for lead content, but as we have shown at LEAD PIPES in BUILDINGS, it's easy to conduct water test sample collection so as to skew results to show very high or very low lead content. If the piping in your home is old it would be prudent to assume that there is lead used in its connectors even without testing many of them. Various sources have pointed out that
In 1986, Congress banned the use of lead solder containing greater than 0.2% lead, and restricted the lead content of faucets, pipes and other plumbing materials to 8.0%. Older construction may still have plumbing that has the potential to contribute lead to drinking water. 
Continue reading at See LEAD POISONING HAZARDS GUIDE for our full list of environmental hazard identification and remedy related to lead in or on buildings, or select a topic from closely-related articles below, or see our complete INDEX to RELATED ARTICLES below.
Steve Bliss's Building Advisor at buildingadvisor.com helps homeowners & contractors plan & complete successful building & remodeling projects: buying land, site work, building design, cost estimating, materials & components, & project management through complete construction. Email: email@example.com
Steven Bliss served as editorial director and co-publisher of The Journal of Light Construction for 16 years and previously as building technology editor for Progressive Builder and Solar Age magazines. He worked in the building trades as a carpenter and design/build contractor for more than ten years and holds a masters degree from the Harvard Graduate School of Education.
Excerpts from his recent book, Best Practices Guide to Residential Construction, Wiley (November 18, 2005) ISBN-10: 0471648361, ISBN-13: 978-0471648369, appear throughout this website, with permission and courtesy of Wiley & Sons. Best Practices Guide is available from the publisher, J. Wiley & Sons, and also at Amazon.com
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