Is Your Home a Death Trap? Don't Let Lead Go Unchecked in Your Home

The dangers of lead aren't restricted to Flint, Michigan, or even to the water source.

U.S. News & World Report

Is Your Home a Death Trap? Don't Let Lead Go Unchecked in Your Home

Paint peeling on an old plaster wall above molding(Getty Images)

The city of Flint, Michigan, made national news in September 2015 when Virginia Tech University research revealed lead levels in the city's water were significantly higher than federal regulations, posing an imminent threat to residents there.

Since then, attention to the crisis in Flint has led to calls for the replacement of the city’s service lines, assistance for residents needing new fixtures and filters for their homes and legislation to ensure this does not occur again.

Could the same thing happen to you? Lead isn't just in Flint – and it’s not just in the water. While it’s largely been regulated out of current use, lead remains in homes in the form of pre-1978 paint and old pipes that can leach lead into the water if they begin deteriorating.

The Environmental Protection Agency notes the health risks of lead exposure are most prominent in children – where developmental problems, slowed growth and hearing loss can occur – and pregnant women, who can experience premature birth or reduced fetal growth. Other adults can experience kidney, cardiovascular and reproductive problems from lead exposure.

Unless properly monitored, sealed or abated, lead can be a prevalent health threat in your home, but it can often be overlooked because it’s an outdated material for both paint and plumbing. If your home, or the home you hope to purchase, was built before 1978, be especially sure you understand how lead can be a danger and know how to best take action to protect yourself and your family from the health risks associated with it.

"I consider lead-based paint a threat," says Darryl Watson, a certified industrial hygienist in the Atlanta area for ATC Group Services, an environmental consulting and industrial hygiene company. Watson believes lead exposure's potential harm to children should be especially concerning when moving into a home. "We know that lead causes developmental problems. [Researchers] keep lowering the threshold [of exposure], if you will, for what could cause developmental problems," but regulations on lead in the home have not caught up to the scientific understanding of the dangers lead poses, he adds.

How do you know if your walls or your water are safe, and how can you reduce the chances of further or future exposure? Here’s the breakdown for both lead paint and lead pipes:

Lead-Based Paint

Before 1978, when lead-based paint was banned from residential use by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, lead was a relatively regular ingredient in wall paint for homes and commercial buildings. The EPA notes as many as 87 percent of homes built in the U.S. before 1940 and nearly one-quarter of U.S. homes built between 1960 and 1977 likely have lead-based paint.

But even if it’s buried beneath generations of new paint coats on the wall, lead paint has the potential to become a danger due to chipping, peeling or even the accumulation of dust.

“If you’re a homeowner who has children, or you want to have children … you should check the house. When was it built? If it’s before 1978, even 1980, I’d test it. I wouldn’t take a risk,” Watson says.

Watson notes that for children, a windowsill or part of a room containing lead dust can be particularly dangerous because lead has a sweet taste, making it tempting to teething babies and curious toddlers. “They learn real quickly that if they crawl through there, then their fingers taste good,” he says.

If you currently live in or are considering buying a home built before lead-based products were largely taken out of home construction, it’s important to know whether you have lead-based paint so you can take the right action.

Disclosure laws in most states require a seller to notify a buyer of any known lead products in the home, which can then be taken into consideration for negotiations. But if the seller hasn't checked for lead, the issue won't be brought up unless the buyer asks about it or requests an inspection.

Homebuyers and renters nationwide receive a pamphlet about lead-based paint when the transaction closes, telling them of the dangers, how to test and how to properly address lead-based paint concerns. But as Larry Wasson, certified general inspector and owner of Affiliated Inspections in Chevy Chase, Maryland, points out, those details of a transaction are rarely taken with much weight: “Realtors make them sign a document that they’ve received the booklet and they know what to do – they don’t know what to do.”

Testing for lead-based paint can be simple. For single-family homes, Watson recommends a LeadCheck, an at-home test sold in most hardware stores. LeadCheck, which typically costs less than $10, allows you to swab the layers of paint on the wall and confirm through a solution color change if lead is present. Test on multiple walls and surfaces, including doorway and window frames, which often see the most peeling and movement that would create dust.

If you do find lead-based paint, you now have to determine the best course of action: Is it something that poses a consistent threat to you, or are you capable of regularly maintaining the area to ensure lead dust can’t form and become airborne. To be sure your decision is as informed as possible, speak with a professional certified in lead inspection or abatement – and get a second, or even third, opinion.

If you decide to remediate, be sure to hire a professional well-versed and certified in lead abatement, as improper removal could create a significant amount of lead dust that would be difficult to remove from the home or become a problem for the neighborhood if done to the exterior of the home.

 “When remediation is done correctly, they’re not using sanding, they’re not blowing it off, they’re controlling where the chips are falling – they’re controlling how much dust they’re making. Sometimes they do it with a chemical peel,” Watson says.

But that’s a matter of trained professionals who are aware of the dangers of lead dust and the need to follow proper protocol. Watson notes in the case of “a homeowner that goes out with his power sander and treats his own siding, all bets are off.”

Lead Pipes

Going deeper into the home – inside the walls and underground – the other major lead threat can be even trickier to control. It’s not just the pipes in your own home but the service lines from the city that connect to your home that you need to worry about.

When properly maintained and monitored lead pipes are not a danger to the water supply because oxidation and chemical treatment by the local municipality keep lead from leaching into the water as it is stored and passes through the pipes.

But when older pipes corrode, or a municipality doesn’t sufficiently monitor lead levels, the metal can get into the water, not only harming residents and workers through drinking water but also the water you use to bathe and cook.

Because residents have no direct control over many of these factors, it’s important to be proactive, taking steps to ensure the pipes in your home are safe, and acting to reduce the chances of contaminated water being consumed.

“The most important thing is to get your water tested by a certified lab,” says David Loveday, director of government affairs for the Water Quality Association, based in Lisle, Illinois.

The EPA includes links on its site to find each state’s certified water-testing labs, and a call to the one nearest to you will get you instructions on how to take a water sample and send it to the lab for testing.

If your water does prove to have a high lead content, or if you’re concerned about future problems, check if any of the pipes on your property are lead. You'll likely need a professional to check the pipes, and in the case of underground lines, some digging will be required. If your pipes were installed before the 1980s, it may be a good idea to update anyway.

Industry regulations require lead content of a pipe or fixture to be less than 0.25 percent, but Barbara Higgens, CEO of Plumbing Manufacturers International, says some imported pipes don’t follow the same requirements.

“There’s a lot of imports that cut corners, that don’t go through the rigorous testing that reputable U.S. manufacturers do,” Higgens says. She says to look for a stamp that verifies the fixture is NSF/ANSI 61 certified, which ensures it’s below the federally regulated lead content.

Once you’ve taken care of the threat on your own property, it’s time to look to the potential for lead getting into the water from municipal lines.

Fortunately, the right water filters can successfully stop lead from posing a danger to your health. The WQA encourages using a “final barrier” treatment, such as a faucet-attached filter, pour-through pitcher or refrigerator filter, to reduce not only the chances of lead getting into the home, but also other potentially harmful materials from getting into the home, such as pesticides, waste and biofilms.

Be sure to follow instructions to keeping filters working properly. “It’s not enough to simply put a filter on, the filters need to be maintained,” Higgens says.

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