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.
The reality is this: Dealing with lead paint hazards is a matter of keeping lead dust from being created. Intact lead paint – truly intact, not peeling, chalking, getting wet from a roof leak, in danger of being chewed or on a friction surface like stairs or a window sash – is not an active hazard. “If you keep it dry and it doesn’t peel or have renovations done, it’s basically safe,” says Robert Zdenek, director of the Alliance for Healthy Homes. You don’t need to “bring in guys in moon suits” for every hazard, agrees Matt Ammon, deputy director of the office of healthy homes and lead hazard control at HUD.
With the proper lead-safe work practices, wet scraping, non-toxic chemical strippers designed to deal with lead, encapsulating paints, and some techniques like window-trough liners and rubber stair treads, a house can be made safe in the short-term without destroying its historic character or costing as much as the house did. It’s not a walk in the park, but neither is it Superfund-level work.
“Just follow a couple simple cleaning and diet tips and your kids’ll be fine. It’s not rocket science.” Verdict: not scary enough, and condescending to boot.
The flip side of the idea that you must take any house with lead down to the studs is the idea that a little tweaking of your cleaning routine and making sure your kids get enough iron and calcium will solve the problem. Cheerful washcloths and spray bottles imprinted with slogans like “Get Ahead of Lead” reinforce this idea.
“There’s some small truth to this,” says Ralph Scott, community projects director of AHH. “You can temporarily reduce lead dust levels through cleaning. You can reduce absorption.” But, he says, if the hazards themselves aren’t then addressed, it’s “almost impossible” to keep lead dust down over the DO seek out other parents in the same boat if your child has an elevated BLL, through groups like ALPHA. They often know more than doctors and inspectors and regulators put together. Join with them to fight for proactive prevention policies that hold landlords and contractors accountable.
DON’T rely on cleaning alone for long-term safety and don’t let your landlord or doctor or social worker or anyone else make you feel like you should be able to.
DO be aware of less common sources of lead. Check your pottery (it doesn’t have to be old or imported), old furniture, soil and water. Sign up for consumer products recall notices from Consumer Product Saftey Commission.
DON’T disturb intact paint without testing, learning lead-safe work practices and removing kids from the house. While kids are more often poisoned in substandard rental housing, poisonings from unsafe renovation projects are among the most severe cases.
long term with cleaning. “These are the easy bits of advice public health agencies can give people when they’re not in a position to give them anything more.” In other words, it’s easier to “educate” parents than to require landlords to fix their dangerous properties.
Of course this gets twisted into the idea that any lead poisoning that does happen is the fault of parents who don’t clean enough. People think that if your kid has an elevated BLL, “either they were eating paint chips or you’re a terrible housekeeper,” says Leann Howell, founder of American Lead Poisoning Help Association, a parents’ organization. Given that lead dust is invisible and not removed by regular cleaning, she says, this is absurd.
Lead-safe cleaning tactics are important: as interim measures while hazard reduction is in process and particularly to get dust caused by previous hazards or the abatement itself out of a house. Lead dust can persist for years if not removed properly. The overriding rule is clean wet; for one description of the full routine, check out New Mexico’s “How to Clean a Lead-Contaminated House.”
“All old buildings are drenched in lead and are basically a lost cause.” Verdict: too scary.
When I bought my house I actually tried to schedule a lead inspection and was told it was a waste of time. “Your house is 100 years old. It’s got lead.” That contractor is very lucky I don’t now remember his name, though he’s not alone in his attitude. Days after my daughter’s BLL results, I invited someone from our local Healthy Neighborhoods Program to come by. Aside from a mop and bucket from Wal-Mart, her primary offerings were to say that “the county wants me to tell you it’s probably your windows” and to urge me to deal with the only visibly peeling paint we had inside: on the water pipes and radiator in our bathroom.
A few days later, when we had the full-on lead inspection we’d sprung for, we learned that the bathroom didn’t have a shred of lead paint in it. We had lead on our porch, our window troughs (but not sills), the back stairs, and the undisturbed underlayer of paint in one bedroom. Nowhere else. It was a lot, but not as much as I’d feared.
The actual hazards in your old building may be more limited than you think. You won’t know until you’ve had a combination lead inspection (for the presence of lead) and risk assessment (where is that lead getting into dust).
“It’s easy to identify the sources of lead in your environment.” Verdict: not scary enough.
“You go through a stage,” says Howell, recounting the myriad sources of lead – old water pipes, toys from China, candy wrappers from Mexico, the clothes of a a parent working in renovation – where you look around and think “there’s nothing safe for my child anywhere.”
Quinn Norton, a parent from the Bay Area, calls trying to be lead-safe “forensic parenting.” She was frustrated by a fruitless search to figure out why her daughter’s lead level was rising, until almost on a whim she used her home test kit on her 1950s bathtub. A friend of mine whose apartment was lead-free eventually tracked the source of her daughter’s elevated level to the local playground.
Lead is a widespread environmental contaminant. It’s addressable, but the idea that it’s always easy to track down the multiple different subtle ways it appears can make parents who are already dealing with lead feel more crazy and those who aren’t complacent.
“All lead-poisoned kids are BRAIN DAMAGED. All kids with a level below 10 are totally fine.” Verdict: too scary and not scary enough, hinging on an arbitrary number.
Lead is nasty, no doubt about it, and current research keeps finding effects – lost IQ points, effects on attention span, increased cavities – at lower levels, to the point where it’s agreed that “there is no safe level.” InWe’re still not prevention-minded enough to provide resources for lead-hazard abatement until after a kid is deemed “poisoned.” fact, it seems that that first jump, from 1 g/dl to 10, may have more of an effect than the jump from 10 to 20. All effects of lead are irreversible. It is not something to be casual about.
The term “lead-poisoned,” however, now means a mind-bogglingly huge range of things. It’s applied to all kids with levels over the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s “level of concern,” which was dropped from 60 g/dl to 40 in 1971, 30 in 1978, 25 in 1985 and 10 in 1991. Some cities are now dropping it to 5. This is a good thing, in that except for publicly funded housing we’re still not prevention-minded enough to provide resources for lead-hazard abatement until after a kid is deemed “poisoned.”
Nonetheless, the effects on a child with a sustained BLL of over 40 – a medical emergency requiring hospitalization – and on one with a short-term level of 7 or 13 are hardly comparable. Suggesting they are the same thing may be counter-productive, since it makes it harder for lead-safety advocates to get beyond the common reaction of “Well, we all had lead levels higher than that when I was growing up, and we came out fine.”
It’s easy to critique, of course, and harder to say how to do it better. Perhaps my own PSA would go something like this: “Protecting your family from lead: It’s not simple, but it doesn’t mean you need to be Martha Stewart or the head of a carpenter’s union. You’ve done lots of harder things as a parent.”