Common Sources of Lead in the Home: Identification Tips and Removal Considerations
While lead is a naturally occurring element in the world, too much exposure can be extremely harmful to humans. Throughout history, people have used lead for its durability and other advantages in a wide variety of building materials, consumer products, and more. This regular use means that lead may accumulate in several places, leading to long-term health problems for babies and young children in particular. The trick is to identify where the lead could be and make a plan to manage it. By considering these common sites for lead throughout the house, homeowners can minimize both their exposure and the long-term risks.
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Lead dust is one of the most common sources of lead exposure in the home. Dust is also one of the most harmful causes of lead poisoning, given how easy it can be to ingest by accident. Although most cases of lead dust come from lead-based paint, there are several possible causes, including:
- Lead-based paint that chips
- Contaminated soil or sandboxes
- Lead dust tracked or carried in from another building
It is tempting for homeowners to conclude that if their homes were built after the 1970s, their homes could not contain lead dust. However, lead dust can be present on the site from previous homes or other sources of lead-based paint on the property. In some cases, people who work with lead may bring it home if they fail to decontaminate before they enter the house.
Lead Dust Removal
The best way to avoid an accumulation of lead dust in the home is to remove it as quickly as possible. Homeowners with older homes may not know if there are layers of lead-based paint on the walls or windows. In most cases, people may want to assume that they may be dealing with lead dust and handle it correctly by:
- Maintaining painted aspects of the home, and repairing chips as needed
- Sweeping and mopping the floor on a regular basis
- Washing hands before preparing or eating food
- Washing clothes regularly
- Using a vacuum with a HEPA filter
As part of a thorough decontamination project for lead-based paint, people may want to consider cleaning their ductwork as well. Ductwork typically does not get very dirty over time, but if it has not been cleaned in years, it may contain lead dust from various rooms in the house.
By itself, lead-based paint is likely the single most common cause of problems related to lead exposure. Lead-based paint was an extremely widespread substance used in the United States for much of the 20th century. Experts estimate that the vast majority of homes built prior to 1940 may have layers of lead-based paint somewhere in the house or on the property. By comparison, a homeowner with a house built in the 1960s or 1970s may have a one in four chance of encountering lead-based paint onsite. This paint was commonly put on walls, but may also be located on:
- Exterior siding
- Window frames and sills
- Door frames and doors
If people suspect they may have lead-based paint in their homes, they may need to collect samples for testing.
How to Manage Lead-Based Paint in the Home
For the most part, lead-based paint that remains undisturbed may not necessarily pose a risk. Trouble happens when the paint flakes or chips, turning into lead dust. Homeowners may want to start by testing for lead paint in the home and on the property. If they find a higher concentration of lead in the samples, they should take care during any renovation projects. These activities are more likely to disturb the paint and increase the risk of exposure — especially the use of a heat gun to remove the paint. If the lead paint is located in places that children are likely to handle or chew on, those features may need mitigation or replacement to neutralize the risk.
Homeowners may need to keep in mind that lead was commonly used in a variety of products for its accessibility and durability. This means people can encounter lead in plenty of hobbies or work scenarios, including:
- Restoring old boats and cars
- Painting, especially creating unique pigments from powder
- Working with pottery, especially glazing
- Renovating homes built prior to 1980
- Welding or soldering
- Working with stained-glass
- Smelting certain types of metals like bronze or brass
- Using old fishing tackle
In many cases, these activities require people to engage directly with a lead substance, which could lead to accidental absorption or ingestion. Because lead-based paint was not in use in the U.S. for decades, the use or handling of older materials or importing items from other countries can increase the risk.
How to Manage Lead Exposure from Hobbies
The best way to minimize lead exposure as a result of these activities is to avoid ingesting it by accident. For example, someone who creates pottery with a glaze that contains lead should keep in mind that these pieces are not meant for use in eating or drinking, as the glaze can chip off and be swallowed. Similarly, someone who works with stained-glass or fishing tackle that contains lead should never put a piece of the materials in their mouth. For other activities that involve lead substances but may not necessarily create lead dust, people should plan to thoroughly clean their workspace and themselves after the task is done. Washing hands and clothes or taking a shower may be sufficient to get rid of any lead dust.
Food & Water
Contaminated water is the most likely source of lead contained in food or liquids. Lead presence in water can happen for a variety of reasons, such as the use of lead pipes or copper pipes with lead soldering in an older home. Because the use of lead for plumbing was an international standard choice for decades, many countries struggle to manage the exposure that plumbing continues to pose. Specifically, any food that comes in contact with lead could contain lead, such as:
- Baby food in glass jars packaged internationally
- Food or liquids served in a bowl containing a lead glaze
- Produce grown in lead-contaminated soil
- Foods cooked in contaminated water
Because most people do not replace the plumbing in their homes until they must, older homes have a higher likelihood of some type of lead component in the pipes. The best way for homeowners to find out if their pipes are affected would be to request testing of the water or soil.
How to Manage Lead in Food & Water
Homeowners who suspect their home's water supply may contain lead should start by having it tested. Testing identifies the presence of lead and can help narrow down the possible causes, particularly if the levels are high. Most people with high levels of lead exposure are getting it from their home, but this is not the only source. As such, people may want to:
- Wash produce, especially if they are unsure where it is grown
- Allow water to run from the faucet for a minute before using, as this can lower lead content
- Buy and use filters that are proven to remove lead from culinary or drinking water
- Avoid drinking water from faucets that do not contain lead-filtering components
Replacing pipes that contain lead can be difficult, but it may be necessary. People should keep in mind that removing lead pipes may decrease lead content in water, but could leave the soil contaminated.
Indoor & Outdoor Air
Just like dust, allergens, and other contaminants, lead can be present in the indoor and outdoor air. Lead exposure in outdoor air comes from industrial activities such as mining or smelting. By comparison, lead present in indoor air typically comes from lead dust, paint, and hobbies like glazing ceramics or painting a stained-glass window. Although lead contamination in water and soil are obviously aspects that could become a problem if they are disturbed, they are less likely to be present in the air. People who work in fields that use or engage with significant quantities of lead are most likely to encounter this situation.
How to Manage Lead in the Air
Many home and commercial buildings are designed to minimize the accumulation of lead and other contaminants in the air. This process is known as filtration or ventilation and comes standard in most buildings constructed in the last 40 to 50 years. For the most part, homeowners can avoid lead exposure in the air by changing out their furnace air filters at least once every three months, or more often if necessary. Otherwise, people can avoid introducing lead into the home by choosing not to smoke indoors, wiping their feet before entering, and washing their hands when they arrive.
Although the use of lead in a variety of substances for the home has fallen out of practice for many things in the U.S., that does not mean people cannot come into contact with new sources of lead exposure. For example, cosmetics often contain trace amounts of lead, and people should take care to understand how it may affect them if they use cosmetics regularly. The FDA sets limits on the ingredients in foods and other items that people may apply to their skin. The limit for food is much lower than the limit for cosmetics like lipstick or eyeliner. However, people should note that applying cosmetics topically can still lead to ingestion. Someone who has a habit of chewing on lipstick that they wear every day may have a higher level of lead exposure than someone who does not wear lipstick at all.
How to Avoid Lead from Cosmetics
Although there are limited numbers of regulatory bodies for cosmetics, people can still minimize their risk by taking a few extra steps. Imported cosmetics may be much more likely to contain levels of lead. In particular, eyeliner that is said to contain kohl, kajal, or surma often contains high levels of lead. These products are banned from sale in the U.S. as a result, although these products may still be brought into the country for distribution. People should avoid using these products, and especially avoid putting them on children. Otherwise, the best bet may be to do research about individual products and check their ratings from nonprofit organizations like the Environmental Working Group. Manufacturers often advertise that their products are clean or safe for use, but consumers should investigate these claims to be sure.
Many consumer products may contain lead because they are not regulated by the U.S. or because they are imported or manufactured in other countries. Additionally, homeowners may want to look out for items passed down through the family or purchased at estate sales that predate manufacturing bans on lead use. These include:
- Hand-painted or plastic toys
- Nylon fabrics and materials
- Antique jewelry
- Lead crystal
- Imported candy
These items may contain lead as part of their composition or due to the manufacturing process. For example, an old plastic toy might contain lead because lead makes plastic easier to mold. By comparison, imported candy may contain lead due to the containers in which ingredients are stored. Lead was a popular component of certain types of glass or metalwork because it adds shine. As such, old glasses or windows may contain high levels of lead.
How to Avoid Lead in Consumer Products
People should be able to manage their lead exposure from consumer products by paying attention to where the products are manufactured and what they are made of. Many products for American consumption are manufactured overseas, and some countries that export large amounts of products may have lower requirements for lead content. People might have a difficult time sourcing the components of their favorite items. As such, it may make the most sense to limit purchases of things that may contain lead, especially for infants and young children.
Vinyl mini blinds made prior to 1997 often contain lead. As with toys and other materials made of plastic, lead helps to make the surface more durable. Specifically, manufacturers added lead to the vinyl so that it would hold its shape longer and be less likely to crack or bend. Unlike lead-based paint, homeowners may be more likely to encounter problems as a result of the blinds without touching them at all. Sun exposure leads to a slight breakdown in the vinyl, and over time, the blinds can collect lead dust. If infants or small children touch the blinds and then put their fingers in their mouths, they could ingest the lead dust. Similarly, someone who touches blinds containing lead without immediately washing their hands may spread the lead dust to other surfaces.
How to Determine if Mini Blinds Contain Lead
Given that vinyl comes in a variety of sizes, shapes, and colors, homeowners may not know the best way to tell if they have mini blinds that contain lead. One of the easiest ways to check older blinds is to examine the brackets. Brackets that are made out of plastic likely hold up mini blinds that contain lead. Otherwise, people can check by attempting to bend one of the slats. Vinyl blinds will crack or spring back into their original shape, while metal blinds stay bent in that position. Homeowners should take care to remove vinyl mini blinds, and they may need to hire a professional to minimize the risk.
Other Common Sources of Lead
Besides a variety of household goods, consumer products, and medicines, there are a handful of other places homeowners may find lead. These include:
- Lead-acid rechargeable batteries
- Solder on the radiators for vehicles
- Printer ink
Lead is still a very popular component in rechargeable batteries because it remains stable and provides the best long-term charging capability. As such, people may find it in automobile batteries as well as deep-cycle batteries used for boats and RVs. Manufacturers use lead to solder a radiator because it will be more durable. They add lead to printer ink to help the ink dry faster on paper.
Protecting Your Home From Lead Exposure
Lead has been a helpful part of all kinds of products throughout history, but it can cause serious harm as well. Homeowners can evaluate the common sources of lead that they might encounter and remove them or mitigate the risk they can face from the exposure. Although lead is often the most dangerous when it is moved, there are still ways that people can remove lead sources from the home without ingesting a vast quantity. With this information and help from a professional, homeowners can reduce the likelihood of lead’s harmful effects.