The Environmental Quality Institute

Lead

Exposure to lead has been recognized as a major public health issue for many years in the United States. In adults, high levels of lead exposure can result in kidney problems or high blood pressure, but it is children who are at the most risk from lead poisoning. Lead exposure is especially dangerous to fetuses or young children because the brain and nervous system are still developing. Children are also more susceptible because of frequent hand-to-mouth activity that brings them into greater contact with lead in the environment. In addition, children absorb and retain a larger percentage of ingested lead per unit of body weight than adults, which increases the toxic effects of the lead.

Effects of Lead in Young Children

The most well-documented health effect of lead in a young child's system is its hindrance of neurological development and lowering of intelligence levels. A 2003 study by Richard Canfield et al. found that blood lead levels as low as 10 ug/dL (micrograms per deciliter) cause a 7 point reduction in a child's IQ compared to children with blood lead levels of 1 ug/dL. A recent study published in July 2005 by Lanphear et al. found a neurological effect at even lower blood lead levels. The authors' international pooled analysis of 1,333 children found evidence of lead-related intellectual deficits in children with blood lead levels less than 7.5 ug/dL, with an estimated decrease of 3.9 IQ points with a blood lead level increase from 2.4 to 10 ug/dL. In additional to intellectual effects, exposure to lead can also decrease hearing and growth, reduce attention span, and cause hyperactivity and behavioral problems which can lead to learning problems in school. Higher lead levels can permanently damage the kidneys and cause seizures, coma or even death.

Childhood Lead Poisoning

In the presence of poverty, poor nutrition, ignorance of the dangers of possible lead contamination, and uninformed or inadequate health care, the lead exposure problem is increased for children. Children who suffer from low-level lead poisoning do not display obvious symptoms and it is virtually impossible to diagnose without a blood lead test. Blood screening can be obtained by calling the local health department or regular physician. Usually there is no charge for this service. The effects of lead poisoning are long term and may be irreversible. Clearly, lead hazards must be identified and controlled before children are poisoned.

Although recent studies show that baseline blood lead levels have been declining over the past two decades, lead is still a significant threat to health, especially for children. The Centers for Disease Control says lead poisoning is the most common and devastating environmental disease affecting young children. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), lead poisoning also remains the foremost preventable disease of childhood. The primary cause of childhood lead poisoning is the ingestion of deteriorated lead-based paint (LBP) and lead contaminated dust and soil inside and outside the home. Children can ingest lead directly by eating "sweet tasting" paint chips or by ingesting lead contaminated house dust and soil during normal hand to mouth exploratory activities. Lead contaminated drinking water is another possible source, which research has shown can add up to about 20% of the total lead exposure. The Environmental Protection Agency states that infants can receive 40% to 60% of their lead exposure from drinking water if they consume primarily mixed formulas.

Protecting Families from Lead

To protect families from exposure to lead from paint, dust, and soil, Congress passed the Residential Lead-Based Hazard Reduction Act of 1992, also known as Title X. Section 1018 of this law directed the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to require the disclosure of known information on LBP and LBP hazards before the sale or lease of most housing built before 1978. According to EPA, about three quarters of the nation's housing stock built before 1978 contains lead-based paint. Most LBP hazards are caused by poor maintenance, paint deterioration, or improperly performed renovation, remodeling, and repainting projects. Federal regulations require that purchasers of pre-1978 housing be given a ten-day opportunity to conduct an inspection for the presence of lead-based paint hazards.

Lead Hazards in Your Home

Lead contaminated drinking waterThere are several ways to determine if you have a lead hazard in your home, including:

  • Hire an inspector to check your home for lead ($250 to $800 per house).
  • Perform self testing by collecting water, paint, dust, or soil samples yourself and having them analyzed at a reputable laboratory (Approximately $12-$24 per sample).

DIY Test Kit Warning

There is a commercially-available home test kit that turns a specific color in the presence of lead. However, these color indicator home test kits are limiting because they are not accurate at low levels. An individual can have negative health effects from low level lead exposures that are not indicated by these home test kits, especially when exposed for a long period of time.

Lead Abatement

Once you have established if your home has a lead hazard, many abatement options are available - some as simple as practicing good housekeeping procedures and performing periodic monitoring.

What can you do to protect your family if you suspect high lead levels in your home?

  • Each time you turn the water on for drinking or cooking, let it run for at least 15 seconds before using it. Water sitting in pipes for several hours has a greater chance of picking up lead contamination.
  • Never use hot water for drinking, cooking, or especially for making baby formula. Heat increases the leaching of lead into water.
  • Damp-mop or wipe any windowsills, floors, or other areas where paint that may contain lead is peeling or flaking. Don't let your children play in untested suspect areas. Be careful, normal vacuuming or dusting may just spread around the dust.
  • Don't store liquids in ceramic or leaded glass containers or crystal, especially in handmade containers that may contain lead.
  • If you have young children, insist that your health professional test their blood lead levels.

EQI's Role

In 1993, EQI teamed up with the Environmental Defense Fund in California to do research to determine if leaded brass faucets were in the best health interests of consumers. Because of this research, most of the major faucet manufacturers in the US agreed to remove lead from their products. For the same reason, submersible pump manufacturers agreed to remove lead from their products. However, older faucets and pumps may leach lead. Although low lead brass fittings are available many brass fittings, cut-off valves, and water meters leach significant amounts of lead. In addition, EQI has also researched the effect of different drinking water disinfection processes on the dissolution of lead from plumbing fixtures, particularly focusing on the switch from chlorination to chloramination.

EQI Lead Reports

Below you will find a selection of archived reports:

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