Used in many materials and products,
lead is a heavy metal that is dangerous to human health. Since lead is
a natural element, it does not break down in the environment. Once lead
has been dispersed and redeposited into the environment, it will remain
there to poison generations of children unless it is controlled or removed.
Even very limited exposures to lead are hazardous to children.
Since lead hazards are more prevalent in older and substandard housing,
lead poisoning is a concrete expression of the affordable housing crisis;
it is more common among poor
children, children of color, and those living in older housing.
Responsible property management, enforceable housing quality standards
that are both practical and cost-effective, and increased resources are
needed to protect high-risk communities and preserve the nation’s
affordable housing stock.
Exposure to lead in housing poses a significant health
risk to young children. When absorbed into the body, it is highly toxic
to many organs and systems and seriously hinders the body's neurological
development. Lead is most harmful to children under age six because it
is easily absorbed into their growing bodies and interferes with the developing
brain and other organs and systems. Pregnant women and women of child-bearing
age are also at increased risk, because lead ingested by the mother can
cross the placenta and affect the unborn fetus.
Lead poisoning causes irreversible health effects
and there is no cure for lead poisoning. At very low levels of exposure
in children, lead causes reduced IQ and attention span, hyperactivity,
impaired growth, reading and learning disabilities, hearing loss, insomnia,
and a range of other health, intellectual, and behavioral problems. At
low levels, lead poisoning may not present identifiable symptoms, and
test is the only way to know if a child is poisoned. The
U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) defines a blood
lead level of 10 µg/dl as a level of concern, indicating that steps
should be taken to reduce ongoing lead exposure, though research has shown
that even lower levels of exposure can cause health problems.
At very high levels of exposure, which are now very
rare in the U.S., lead poisoning can cause mental retardation, coma, convulsions,
and even death. Except for severely poisoned children, there is no medical
treatment for this disease. While drug therapy can reduce high levels
of lead in the body, it does not undo the harm caused to developing organs
As lead poisoning rates have declined nationally, the disparities of
this disease have increased. In some communities, the rate of exposure
is about five times the national average, which is estimated at 1.6 percent
of children aged 1-5. In the U.S., children from poor families are more
likely to be poisoned than those from higher income families. African-American
children are also at increased risk, when compared with both Hispanic
and white children.
The major remaining cause of lead poisoning is lead-based
paint in housing, especially housing built before 1950, when lead paint
was commonly used. Most children with elevated lead levels are poisoned
in their own homes by peeling lead-based paint and the lead dust it generates.
Lead dust settles quickly, is difficult to clean up, and is invisible
to the naked eye. Young children usually are poisoned through normal hand-to-mouth
activity, as lead dust settles on their toys and the floor. Children may
also be seriously poisoned by eating lead-based paint chips, but this
is relatively rare.
Two situations account for the vast majority of
poisoning in children. Most commonly, children are poisoned by lead dust
from deteriorated paint in poorly maintained older housing. A lesser number
of cases—though often more serious—are caused by repainting
and remodeling projects that disrupt old painted surfaces without proper
safeguards to control, contain, and clean up lead dust. In both scenarios,
small amounts of lead dust can create substantial health risks. For example,
imagine the amount of sugar in a 1-gram packet. The same amount of lead
particles evenly spread over 100 rooms, each measuring 10 feet by 10 feet,
would leave dust levels of 100 µg/ft2, an amount of lead
that is more than twice the federal standard (40 µg/ft2)
for a hazardous level of lead on floors.
Housing age is an important predictor of risk, because
the lead content of paint varied substantially over the past century.
During the first half of the twentieth century, the lead content of paint
was marketed as a measure of its quality—the more lead the better.
Prior to about 1940, leaded paints typically contained high amounts of
lead, ranging from 10 percent to as much as 50 percent. Lead was added
to make paint durable, so lead paint was frequently used in high-traffic
and high-moisture areas, including kitchens and bathrooms, exterior siding
and trim, window and door trim, stairs, porches, etc. In the early 1950s,
the paint industry began reducing lead content, although many paints still
contained harmful amounts of lead. Federal regulations limited lead content
in 1972 and effectively banned lead in residential paints in 1978.
While lead paint is a widespread problem, the mere
presence of lead-based paint in a home is not a hazard, as about 40 percent
of all U.S. housing contains some leaded paint, and the vast majority
of children live safely in these homes and apartments.
The U.S. Geological Survey estimates the mean naturally
occurring lead in soil concentration to be 16 parts per million (ppm).
Additional lead in soil can come from many sources, including:
- Exterior lead-based paint that is peeling or flaking
- Dust or paint chips resulting from repainting
or renovation projects
- Demolition of buildings with lead-based paint
- Exterior sandblasting
- Deposition from emissions of vehicles that used
leaded gasoline (i.e., when leaded gasoline was used in the past, it
released lead particles into the air, which have since settled in soil)
In yards where soil is contaminated with lead, children can become exposed
to harmful levels of the heavy metal when they get their hands dirty and
place their fingers or a dirty or dusty toy in their mouths during normal
play activity. Lead-contaminated soil and dust can also be tracked into
homes on shoes or by pets or can be blown in through open windows and
doors. Vegetables grown in lead-contaminated soil may absorb lead and
poison children and adults.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) defines a soil lead hazard
as 400 parts per million (ppm) in play areas and a 1,200 ppm average for
bare soil in the rest of the yard.
Drinking water may become contaminated with lead from pipes or solder
when water corrodes them. EPA estimates that drinking water accounts for
10 to 20 percent of human exposure to lead. Infants may be put at increased
risk from lead in drinking water when contaminated tap water is used to
make baby formula. EPA recommends that action be taken if more than 10
percent of tap water samples exceed the action level of 15 parts per billion.
Less common sources include workplace exposures to lead where workers
may receive doses well above those experienced by the general population.
Exposed workers may carry lead particles home on their clothing, shoes,
or hair, putting family members at risk. Those who work in construction,
demolition, painting, with batteries, in radiator repair shops, lead factories,
or with a hobby that involves lead are often exposed to lead.
Rare sources of exposure include food and drink stored in leaded crystal,
lead-soldered cans, or lead-glazed ceramicware; home remedies and cosmetics
that are popular in some cultures; and some consumer products.
As you can not see the small specks of lead in household dust, a lead
dust test is the only way to be sure that lead-contaminated dust is not
Key steps in testing:
- Call a lead expert or order a home dust kit yourself.
- Collect lead dust wipes on floors and windows
- Send lead test materials to an LPAT-approved
laboratory for analysis. Results are usually mailed back within a few
- Compare the results to the national standards
How to arrange for testing:
- Contact your state or county health department.
Some agencies provide testing services or maintain lists of services.
- Use a home dust test kit. Call an environmental
laboratory for a home test kit. (Detailed protocols for lead dust testing
are available below.
- Contact a certified lead professional (Contact
your state health department).
- Instant spot test kits can provide useful information
but are not as accurate as a test that uses a laboratory.
- HUD standards for lead dust are 40 micrograms
of lead per square foot for floors and 250 micrograms of lead per square
foot for window sills.
How much will it cost?
- Lab analysis costs about $5 to $20 per sample,
depending on the number of samples and the laboratory you choose.
- Usually, two or three samples per room provide
- Having someone else come to your home to collect
the samples costs more.
From the Alliance's past project, the Community
Environmental Health Resource Center, here are some informative materials
and tools for low-cost testing for lead content in dust, paint, soil and
Most health department lead poisoning prevention programs postpone action
to address lead-based paint hazards until after a child has been identified
as lead poisoned. In effect, children are used to detect lead hazards
in their homes. Over the past decade, emphasis has shifted to primary
prevention to prevent and control lead hazards in housing before
a child's health is harmed.
of lead exposure is key to protecting the health of children and others.
Major components of primary prevention are:
The following are several steps that can help reduce your family’s
exposure to lead:
- If you live in an older home or apartment or if
you have any reason to worry about lead poisoning, have your child’s
blood tested for lead. Make sure it is a blood
lead test and that you are told the actual number for your
child’s blood lead. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
(CDC) defines a blood lead level of 10 ug/dl as a level of concern,
indicating that you should take steps to reduce ongoing lead exposure.
At higher blood lead levels, more aggressive measures are recommended,
such as medical treatment. Young children served by Medicaid are entitled
to free lead tests.
- If you purchase or rent a home built before 1978,
you should have received information about lead-based paint hazards.
As a result of federal requirements that went into effect in 1996, property
owners of pre-1978 units must disclose any known hazards and provide
a pamphlet to prospective tenants or buyers about lead. Prospective
purchasers have the option to have the property tested for lead hazards
at their own expense.
- Good maintenance is important to keep lead-based
paint intact. (Maine's Department of Environmental Protection also has
- Conduct a simple test
for lead dust in your home.
- Consider having your home evaluated for lead hazards
by a state- or EPA-certified risk assessor, or send a dust or paint
sample to a laboratory. Remember, if your home was built before 1978,
chances are that it contains some lead paint—it’s almost
certain to be present in pre-1950 homes. Keep in mind that intact lead
paint is rarely a hazard.
- Do not remove lead-based paint yourself. This
can be extremely hazardous.
- Keep areas where children play as dust-free and
clean as possible. Wet mop floors and wipe window ledges and surfaces
such as cribs with a general all-purpose cleaner or a cleaner made specifically
for lead and warm water.
- Have children play in sand and grassy areas instead
of dirt, which sticks to their fingers and toys.
- Have children wash their hands after playing outside
and before meals, naps, and at bedtime.
- Do not bring lead dust into your home from the
workplace or environment. Wipe your feet before entering your home.
Remove work clothes and wash them separately from the rest of your family’s
- Have your water tested for lead. Water may contain
lead from pipes, solder, or faucets containing lead.
- Eat a healthy diet that includes iron, calcium,
and foods low in fat. Foods rich in iron include eggs, some nuts, and
beans. A healthy diet causes the body to absorb less lead.
Federal agencies have developed and implemented some
measures, such as those below, that are reducing exposure to lead hazards:
Federal policies are also in place regarding screening
children for lead poisoning, though there are still pending
policy issues surrounding this topic.
Alliance for Healthy Homes
A Guide to Working Safely
with Residential Lead Paint - an informational brochure developed
by the National Center for Healthy Housing and the Painting and Decorating
Contractors of America
Lead Poisoning Prevention Program - This CLPPP works with
local and statewide organizations to educate the public and medical community
about lead poisoning; provide case management services; identify, reduce,
and remediate lead hazards; and assist local housing departments in lead
hazard remediation activities.
American Industrial Hygiene Association - Accredited
Lab Listings - Choose the ELLAP accreditation program to
find a list of U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)-approved lead
End Childhood Lead Poisoning
Spread Lead - explains lead-safe work practices to do-it-yourself
Lead Network - provides policy and advocacy tools and resources
to develop and implement solutions to international aspects of lead poisoning
and pollution, maintains online discussion conferences, and has searchable
databases of members, best practices, legislation, and citations
Safe Illinois - has free educational tools, interactive tests,
housing guidelines, and local statistics for the Chicago, Illinois area
Maintaining a Lead Safe Property - a do-it-yourself manual, published
by Dennis Livingston, for homeowners and property managers, which provides
step-by-step instructions and detailed illustrations of affordable solutions
to lead-based paint problems. To order copies, contact Community Resources;
28 E. Ostend Street; Baltimore, MD 21230; Phone: 410-727-7837 or Fax:
National Safety Council - Lead
Poisoning - includes general information, contact links,
and alerts about current lead threats
- This interactive web-based tool, developed jointly by the Alliance and
Environmental Defense, presents community-level information about potential
lead hazards associated with housing, enables users to determine the relative
risk of lead hazards in their state or county, and allows users to rank
that state or county’s lead hazards relative to other portions of
Tip Sheet – This fact sheet was developed by the
Alliance to help individuals use the Scorecard effectively
State of Maine, Department of Environmental Protection - Essential
Maintenance for a Lead-Safe Home
Against Lead (UPAL)
U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (in
U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration - OSHA-approved Blood
Lead Laboratories Listed by Location
Lead Information Center: 1-800-424-LEAD [1-800-424-5323]
The NLIC provides the general public and professionals with information
about lead hazards and their prevention. Callers may order an information
package or speak to an information specialist.
- Safe Drinking Water Hotline: 1-800-426-4791
This hotline provides information on Safe Drinking Water Act regulations,
lead and radon in drinking water, filter information and a list of state
drinking water offices.
- Su Familia (Your Family): 1-866-SU FAMILIA
Alliance for Hispanic Health sponsors this helpline to
offer Hispanic consumers free, reliable and confidential health information
in Spanish and English and help navigate callers through the health
- TSCA Assistance Information Service: 202-554-1404
Provides information on Toxic Substances Control Act regulations and
on EPA's asbestos program