By Kathleen Gura Chairperson, Environmental Safeguards Committee, LCH

A Serious Threat to Kids

Americans will be hearing a lot about lead very soon. A new federal law requiring "disclosure of any known lead hazards" on residential property transfers and eases went into effect this past October. Right now, the State Legislature, as well as lending, construction, and insurance industries are scrambling to write laws and policies that will affect millions of consumers, homeowners and workers in the years to come.

How dangerous is lead?

Most Americans are blissfully unaware of the dangers. According to the National Centers for Disease Control, "lead poisoning is the number one environmental health problem affecting children in the United States." In fact, lead poisoning affects one of every six children and an unknown number of adults in the U.S. A child may seem perfectly healthy and still have lead poisoning. Often there are no symptoms.

How does poisoning occur?

Lead poisoning occurs when lead particles or lead dust is ingested or inhaled. The younger the child, the higher the risk. Children aged nine months to five years are especially at risk because they tend to put everything in their mouths and their bodies absorb lead more readily than adults. According to a 1990 CDC study, children with moderate lead levels have a higher risk of not graduating from high school, of having reading disabilities, deficits of vocabulary, problems with fine motor coordination, greater absenteeism, and lower class ranking. Some experts contend that 20% of delinquency can be attributed to lead poisoning and that it may also cause hyperactivity and attention deficit disorder (ADD). In adults, lead can decrease learning ability, cause hearing loss, high blood pressure, muscle aches, joint pain, lower sperm count, and decreased longevity.

What actions are being taken?

The Northeast is several years ahead of American in terms of lead legislation. Concurrently, the number of lead paint lawsuits in that area is increasing rapidly with landlords and lenders as prime targets. In 1993, there were 1,500 lead-related cases pending in Boston and Baltimore area courts alone.

Who is most likely at risk?

Homes and apartments built before 1978 are considered prime risks. "In general, the older the house the more likely it is to have lead based paint or varnish, and the higher the lead concentration of the paint is likely to be," according to a 1991 report by the Health and Environment Subcommittee of the U.S. House of Representatives. Experts estimate that 75% of homes and apartments built before 1980 contain some lead paint.

Lead Dust: Peeling paint is not the only hazard. Lead dust caused by frequent use of windows and doors and sanding of woodwork and old walls during renovation is of equal concern. If your home has lead paint and you plan to fix it up, don’t do it yourself. Hire a contractor licensed to work with lead. Also, be sure children and pregnant women move out during the renovation.

Contaminated Soil: Contaminated soil is another major risk. Paint “chalks” as it ages, turning into tiny particles that mix with soil around the house. Since lead doesn’t “leach out” through soil, it accumulates. Kids at play get it on their hands, toys and clothing and ingest it through frequent hand-to-mouth activities. Other hazards include old water pipes, old or imported dishware or pottery, lead crystal, and various “lead proximity” occupations like battery and radiator manufacturing, auto mechanics, printing, and construction.

Is Your Home Poisoning You?

Millions of Americans are poisoned needlessly by lead paint found in homes built before 1978. Is there a problem at your house? Do you know what to do about it? "Making a house lead safe can be quite inexpensive," according to Kathleen Gura, President of HomeSafe Environmental and chair of the Environmental Safeguards Committee for The League of California Homeowners. "You don't have to change your lifestyle or give up anything. Once you know how lead gets into the body and where it's likely to be in your home, solving the problem is mostly common sense. But to solve a problem, first you have to know if a problem exists."

There are several ways to evaluate a home for lead hazards.

Risk Assessment: A risk assessment is a 2-step process. First your home is inspected, then dust and soil samples are taken. Secondly, a report is prepared that tells you how to manage or eliminate hazards that are found. A risk assessment costs about $350. A copy of the report must be given to buyers when you sell your home.

Lead Profile: A Lead Profile is an inexpensive way to find out about lead. After completing a short questionnaire, you receive a 20-30 page customized report that tells you where lead hazards are likely to be in your home, and how to manage or eliminate them. The cost is only $29.95. (There is also a Lead Profile for owners and managers of rental units. The cost is $69.95). The Lead Profile is available exclusively form HomeSafe Environmental. Because no tests are taken, a copy of the report does not have to be given to buyers (or tenants) when you sell or rent your home.

Lead Survey: A lead survey involves limited dust and soil samples. The report does not include recommendations. The cost is usually about $100. (The lead survey, combined with a Lead Profile, gives you much of the same information as a risk assessment, but at a fraction of the cost.) A copy of the lead survey must be given to buyers when you sell your home.

Do It Yourself Testing: The inexpensive kits available at most hardware stores often have difficulty detecting lead paint under several layers of newer paint. Neither HUD nor EPA allow their use because or unreliable results. The kits are, however, an excellent way to test pottery, dishes and mugs for lead.

Lead Paint Inspection: A lead inspection measures every surface in your home for lead. It doesn't tell you, however, if the lead is a hazard or not. A lead inspection should be done before renovation or remodeling to test the surfaces that will be disturbed. It cost about $300. A copy of the report must be given to buyers when you sell your home.

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Lead Poisoning In Your Home