Living with lead a neurotoxin that can cause low IQs, behavioral and learning issues for children, and high blood pressure, pain, or memory loss for adults; is something every homeowner or renter wants to avoid. But the unfortunate reality is that lead can be found in many homes we live in, buildings we frequent, and infrastructure we depend on.
Lead concerns can be as personal as discovering lead paint in beloved built-ins at home and as detrimentally widespread as water contamination from lead pipes. So how much of a risk does it pose in your life? And if you think there’s lead in your home, what should you do?
Curbed spoke with three environmental experts about when and how to test for lead, whether you’re a homeowner or renter. In tackling this scary neurotoxin, knowledge is power and proper testing and treatment can make it manageable.
Lead is a naturally occurring element found in small amounts in the earth’s crust. “Lead was used for years and years and years—there’s historical records that it may have led to the downfall of the Roman empire,” says Frank Lesh, ambassador for the American Society of Home Inspectors.
In more modern times it’s been used in paint, ceramics, pipes and plumbing materials, gasoline, batteries, ammunition, even cosmetics. It can be absorbed into soil and also move into groundwater. Federal and state laws and regulations over the years have helped reduce the amount of lead in air, drinking water, soil, products, and buildings.
Children are at the highest risk, as their growing bodies absorb more lead than adults and their brains and nervous systems are more sensitive to lead’s damaging effects. Lesh points out that because children often put their hands and other objects in their mouths, it heightens the risk of ingesting lead dust or soil. Pregnant women are at risk, too, since lead exposure can carry to a developing baby.
Buildings are the primary concern for lead exposure. The U.S. banned the manufacturing of lead-based house paint in 1978, so any home built before then likely includes lead paint.
In many older U.S. cities, Lesh adds, the water supply line includes lead pipes. It’s not necessarily cause for alarm, as cities treat their water to mitigate effects from lead. “But what I recommend is to identify what the water supply coming into the house is,” Lesh says. With a public drinking water supply, you can ask for your municipality’s Consumer Confidence Report (CCR), an annual drinking water quality report which lists levels of contaminants found during testing, including lead. You can also reach out to the environmental health agency to make sure “corrosion control” for the water supply is in place. (It’s a coating of minerals and deposits keeping lead in pipes from leaching into the system.)
Say you’re living in a home built before 1978. The best time to move ahead on lead testing is before a significant demolition or renovation, according to Alex Stadtner, president of environmental consulting firm Healthy Building Science. Another opportune testing time is if you find peeling, flaking, or chalking paint. If dried-up paint has wrinkly, alligator-like skin, there’s a good chance it’s lead-based.
Dust around windows or door frames, which pose the greatest risk in homes with lead paint, should prompt immediate testing when identified. Lead dust can end up on children’s hands, on their toys, and in the air. “When you breathe lead and it gets into your lungs, it’s absorbed into your bloodstream the easiest,” Lesh says.