Every so often, you hear a Public Service Announcement warning about the dangers of living in a home built before 1978 due to the risk of lead paint exposure because children are especially susceptible to its dangers.
You may encounter two different types of people when it comes to these warnings: those who say you should be in constant worry because lead paint is still everywhere and those who say all the worry about lead poisoning is overblown.
They both have their points. There are times and places to have concerns about lead poisoning, but it’s not “all the time, always and everywhere.”
In our last article, we mentioned things containing potentially-leaded paint among things you shouldn’t buy secondhand, and promised to elaborate on it. Consider this the much-anticipated sequel.
Maybe it would be best to start with a quick rundown of what lead poisoning is and how it works.
Lead is an elemental metal and it’s pure evil. It occurs naturally in the soil all over planet Earth. But when exposed to enough of it, lead poisoning can cause adverse effects on almost any part of the human body including respiratory issues, neurological issues, psychological issues, brain damage and organ failure.
Health organizations around the world agree the maximum “safe” level of lead exposure is none at all.
Children, however, are the most vulnerable to the effects of lead poisoning. It’s tragically common for children around the world and throughout history to suffer mental and physical developmental issues as a direct result of lead exposure.
Of course, we only started figuring this all out in the last century or so. This was convenient for people of the past, because if you ignore all the horrific health hazards, it turns out lead is actually a very useful metal.
It’s especially handy for paint. Leaded paint strengthens the object it’s painted on, is more impervious to water, and generally lasts longer than other paints.
Lead started to be heavily regulated throughout the 20th century, and nowadays most things in the U.S. aren’t allowed to use lead paint. The only common usage is for painting roads and road signs. But while it’s not nearly as universal as it used to be, lead paint is still lurking here and there.
The Walls that Protect You
These days, the most common worry about lead paint exposure is from the walls of older homes.
Lead paint was banned from home usage in 1978, so any home built before that should be checked for it. That said, lead paint usage did start trailing off during the century, so a home built in 1975 has only about a 24% chance of containing lead paint, whereas a home built in 1935 would have an 87% chance of having it.
With this in mind, a home with lead paint can be safely habitable if everything is in good condition. If the paint is in pristine condition (or, better yet, if it’s since been covered with a coat or two of unleaded paint), it could be harmless if unbothered. The trouble starts when it is bothered.
Lead paint in homes is the most dangerous when it’s deteriorating (chipping or flaking, for example), as small children may consume the paint chips. If everybody in the house is old enough to know not to consume them, then that’s not a concern.
However, a hazard for people of all ages is actually from dust. This can be from heavy-duty remodeling by sanding off the paint, or from certain surfaces repeatedly rubbing their own paint off – door hinges and sills of sliding windows, for example.
If any quantity of lead paint is going to be an issue, it’s best to have it expertly removed and repainted while the inhabitants stay out of the home for a bit. This can be expensive, but it may prove to be necessary to make a house livable.
Home-sellers are also supposed to warn prospective buyers about lead paint so they don’t get stuck in such remodeling situations, but sometimes you can’t force people to follow the law.
Unfortunately, the dangers of lead paint might not end there.
Another Time, Another Place
Using lead paint on most things is currently illegal in the United States. But it wasn’t illegal in the past and it’s not currently illegal in many other countries.
Lead paint wasn’t just used on buildings. Antiquated items and products manufactured in many foreign countries may very well be coated in lead.
Firstly, let us clarify the situation with foreign-made products: most of them are fine. It’s a messy situation though. Many products manufactured overseas are tested for lead paint when they’re shipped over here and most of them pass while some of them don’t.
In general, products made by “generic” companies and manufacturers are the ones you need to watch out for. Naturally, these companies often make toys and accessories for children.
In that sense, it would be understandable to worry about these companies’ products since your children are the ones using them, but again, the biggest risk is when the paint is chipped off and consumed. If you don’t think that will be a problem, then that may be a risk you’re willing to take.
In the interest of fairness, many countries producing items with lead paint do have regulations on lead paint use, but they simply have major trouble enforcing them. Furthermore, American companies may also put out leaded products when they contract shady manufacturers overseas.
So, the “lead paint on toys” situation isn’t just black and white.
This is probably much less of a concern, but lead paint may also be on older items that predate regulations, such as (again) toys and jewelry. It’s not restricted to just those two things, though.
For example, if you come across very old wooden pencils, it’s not the “lead” you write with that you need to worry about; they’ve been using graphite in pencils for centuries. The lead in old pencils is in the paint – all the more reason not to gnaw on them.
An Ever-Present Threat?
Remember: lead isn’t just in paint. It’s everywhere. It could very well be in the soil around your home, especially if you live by an old major thoroughfare that dates back to when lead was in gasoline, or if your home was coated with lead paint on its outside and flakes have since permeated the dirt.
This isn’t an issue for any plants you might be growing in your garden. Plants reject lead because it has no nutrients for them, but it may affect the groundwater in your area. It’s the groundwater you need to worry about.
There may also be lead pipes bringing water to your faucet. The degree to which this is dangerous depends on how much the pipes are corroding (and sometimes the water itself is what corrodes them).
In some cases, municipalities fail to thoroughly purify the water before it reaches you. The question that remains is how much do you trust your local government?
Traces of lead may even be found in our chocolate of all things, since cocoa beans (which are very absorptive) are often harvested in countries that still use leaded gasoline. With all this information, what are we supposed to do now?
What We’re Supposed to Do Now
Perhaps you shouldn’t completely disregard the potential hazards of lead poisoning, but you don’t have to worry more than you need to, either.
If you have a child under the age of six, then it makes sense to exercise extra caution, especially around generic products or in old buildings.
If you do not have a young child in your life, you can probably get away with simply using basic reasoning to avoid doing anything too dangerous, like eating dirt or chewing on antique pencils.
Many naysayers argue that worrying about lead poisoning is a waste of time, because after all, “have you ever met somebody with lead poisoning?”
While they have a point that lead poisoning itself being formally diagnosed doesn’t happen very often in modern America, they fail to remember that lead affects humans in so many ways, you very well may know somebody who’s suffered lead poisoning without their resulting illness being traced back to lead exposure.
But if that’s the case, is it possible each of us has been exposed to at least a little bit of lead and we just don’t realize it?
Does that mean our objective now is to minimize the damage if we can’t erase it?
It may be, but it doesn’t hurt to try.
There are many scary things in this world that could hurt us if we aren’t careful. But as they say, the more you know about something, the less you’ll fear it.