Testing Your Home for Lead

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(This article appeared in the April-June 2011 issue of The American Postal Worker magazine.)

Joyce B. Robinson, Research & Education Department Director

Many houses and apartments built before 1978 contain high levels of lead, which can pose serious health hazards. The lead typically comes from the paint used in these dwellings. Federal law requires landlords and sellers to supply information on the effects of lead before renting, buying, or renovating pre-1978 housing, and buyers have up to 10 days to check for lead.

Lead’s Effects

It is important to know that even exposure to low levels of lead can cause serious harm. In children, lead exposure can cause damage to the nervous system and to kidneys; it also can cause learning disabilities, attention deficit disorder, and decreased intelligence; speech, language, and behavior problems; poor muscle coordination; decreased muscle and bone growth, and hearing damage. While low lead exposure is most common, exposure to high levels of lead can cause seizures, unconsciousness, and, in some cases, death.

Although children are especially susceptible to lead exposure, lead can be dangerous for adults too. In adults, exposure can cause an increased chance of illness during pregnancy; harm to a fetus, including brain damage or death; fertility problems (in men and women); high blood pressure; digestive problems; nerve disorders; memory and concentration problems, and muscle and joint pain.

Testing Your Home for Lead

You can get your home tested for lead in several different ways. A paint inspection tells you whether your home has lead-based paint and where it is located. However, it won’t tell you whether or not your home currently has lead hazards. A risk assessment tells you if your home currently has any lead hazards from lead in paint, dust, or soil. It also tells you what actions to take to address any hazards. A combination risk assessment and inspection tell you if your home has any lead hazards or lead-based paint, and where the lead-based paint is located.

To check your home, it’s best to hire a trained and certified professional who will use a range of reliable methods. There are state and federal programs in place to ensure that testing is done safely and effectively. Call 800-424-5323 for a list of contacts in your area.

How to Protect Your Family

If you suspect that your house has lead hazards, you can take some immediate steps to reduce your family’s risk:

  • If you rent, notify your landlord of peeling or chipping paint;
  • Clean up paint chips immediately;
  • Clean floors, window frames and sills, and other surfaces weekly. Use a mop or sponge with warm water and use a cleaner made specifically for lead;
  • Do not store food and liquids in lead crystal;
  • Check old plumbing in homes and apartments;
  • Use only cold water for drinking and cooking. Run water for 15 to 30 seconds before drinking it. Do not boil the water before drinking;
  • Thoroughly rinse sponges and mops after cleaning dirty or dusty areas;
  • Wash children’s hands often, especially before meals and before bedtime;
  • Wash bottles, pacifiers, toys, and stuffed animals regularly;
  • Keep small children from playing in soil, chewing on painted surfaces, and
  • Clean or remove shoes before entering your home to avoid tracking in lead from soil.

For additional information, contact: The National Lead Information Center: 800-424-424-5323. To access lead information via the Web, visit www.epa.gov/lead andwww.hud.gov/offices/lead. For the hearing impaired, call the Federal Information Relay Service at 800-871-8339 for assistance.

EPA’s Safe Drinking Water Hotline: 800-426-4791. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) Hotline: 800-638-2772, or visit CPSC’s Web site at www.cpsc.gov.

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