The real facts about children and lead poisoning, on

“Now, don’t think this means you need to go crazy scraping paint.” It was my husband on the phone, but I could hear our pediatrician’s voice from the other end of the couch as if she were speaking directly into my brain. “We’ll test again in three months and see if the levels have gone down.” 

My daughter’s one-year routine lead screening had returned a blood-lead level of 18 micrograms/deciliter, which our doctor called “borderline high,” by which she meant it wasn’t high enough to call for medical treatment.

When I recounted this assessment to my county lead specialist the next morning, he responded witheringly: “That’s not borderline, that’s high. That’s lead poisoning.”

The guilt was blinding. I felt like a stereotypical stupid hippie for every second I’d spent researching vaccine safety or making my own organic baby food instead of mopping my floors. “Entirely preventable” is the slogan of the lead-poisoning prevention world. It’s meant to be hopeful, but it felt like a scolding. “This is so simple,” it seemed

DO proactively test your home and other places your kid goes. Follow your gut and be assertive. If you hire inspectors, make them take dust wipes from the areas you’re worried about, not just where they think is good idea.

DON’T lose perspective. One drink of wine at Christmas from a lead crystal glass is not going to make you lead poisoned.

DO pass on what you know about your home and how you’ve addressed the hazards to new residents or owners. While your real estate agent or landlord will resist, it’s not only the law and the right thing to do, but as Leann Howell found, most buyers will actually appreciate the detailed information over an routine “unaware of lead hazards” statement that they suspect is a lie.

continued on the next pageto say. “How could you have messed up so badly?”

Once I came up for air from my frenzied cleaning and began trying to reconcile the various results of my research, however, I started to suspect it wasn’t exactly so simple. If it was a simple matter of old paint, how come the kids of my friends with houses in similar conditions hadn’t tested high? Why was no one sure if I was supposed to be abating or just washing her hands more?

Nearly everyone is on board with the most major shift in lead-safety messages over the past couple decades: The problem is no longer seen as mostly paint chips and kids “gnawing on window sills.” Lead dust from deteriorating paint, we now know, is actually the primary way kids get exposed.

Beyond that point of agreement, however, the priorities get a little jumbled. Public health messages have it hard: they need to be scary enough that people take threats seriously, but not so overboard that people either tune them out or get despondent and give up. Many people who try to get the full scoop on lead are getting not so much a balance as a mix of both extremes.

Here are some of the messages I repeatedly encountered, some from official pamphlets or spokespeople, some in conventional wisdom or online message boards, some explicit, some implied, all based on a lot of truth but missing a few crucial pieces.

“To deal with lead you either have to clean like a madwoman every day for the rest of your life or spend thousands completely tearing your house apart and putting it back together.” Verdict: too scary, plus a waste of resources.

When I went to learn about my city’s lead abatement assistance program, I was told that the one and only option was to rip out all windows, doors, or molding and sheetrock over any walls that had lead anywhere on them. Not wanting to destroy my 100-year-old house, and suspecting this wasn’t the only way, I demurred.

Tagged as: