Avoid These Common Sources of Lead Exposure
January 30, 2023
By Megan Boyle, Editorial Director
There is no safe level of exposure to lead, especially for kids.
This potent neurotoxin harms practically every organ system in our bodies, particularly our brains. Numerous studies link lead exposure to health problems, including permanent brain damage, lowered IQ, hearing loss, miscarriage, premature birth, high blood pressure and kidney damage.
Although lead is a metallic element that occurs in nature, we can blame most of our exposures to it on modern living. Industrial practices have contaminated soil and water with lead, and manufacturers add it to products we use every day.
But there are steps you can take to protect your family. Read on for more about common sources of lead exposure and ways to avoid it.
Until its ban in 1978, lead paint was everywhere – on the interiors and exteriors of homes, schools, public buildings and even furniture. More than 30 years later, deteriorating old paint remains a major source of lead exposure.
If your home was built before 1978, keep it clean and well-maintained, since dust can carry traces of lead. Take particular care with painted surfaces you touch often, like bannisters, doors and window sills (particularly if you have young children who may handle them).
Not sure if your home contains lead paint? Consider having it inspected and assessed for risk, especially if you have young children. If you’re planning to remodel a home built before 1978, hire a lead-safe certified contractor who will test paint, partition off the workspace and take precautions to ensure that lead contamination doesn’t invade your living space.
Talk to people at your daycare, school, community center, church and office as well. Ask when the buildings were constructed and what steps they take to minimize lead exposure.
In 1986, an amendment to the federal Safe Drinking Water Act prohibited the use of lead in plumbing materials. But as older pipes and fixtures corrode or the soldering breaks down, lead particles can still leach into your tap water.
Regulations enforced by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency require water utilities to take action if more than 10 percent of water samples contain lead at the level of 15 parts per billion. How can you know if your water is contaminated?
Public drinking water utilities regularly check their water for lead and certain other chemicals and are required to disclose the results. Call EPA’s Safe Drinking Water Hotline at (800) 426-4791 to learn how.
Lead problems sometimes develop when a city switches water sources or disinfection chemicals, as happened recently in Flint, Michigan and famously in Washington, D.C. in the early 2000s. During the D.C. lead crisis, the utility covered up rising lead levels as they occurred. The Washington Post uncovered the scandal in 2004, by which time thousands of children had been affected.
If you suspect that your tap water contains lead, you can get your water tested on your own. And you should use a water filter designed to remove this contaminant specifically. EWG’s Water Filter Buying Guide offers a list of these filters on the market. Look for products certified for this purpose by NSF International. Always run the tap before collecting water and use cold water for drinking and cooking. Do not mix with infant formula; use bottled or filtered water instead.
Flaking paint, old leaded gasoline and industrial plants can send excess lead into the soil. People who eat food that grows in lead-contaminated soil or track the soil into their homes will be at risk for lead toxicity. Likewise kids who put dirty hands in their mouths will ingest it.
To lower your family’s risk, remove old paint from porches, decks and playground equipment, leave shoes outside, and wash hands when you come indoors.
In 2023 Congress enacted a law to tighten enforcement to prevent lead from being used in children’s toys and other products designed for children under the age of 13. But old, antique or collectible toys, toy jewelry and some toys made abroad may contain lead, either in the paint or plastic material.
There are no visible markers of lead in a toy, so if you suspect your child’s toy contains lead, it’s best to be safe and dispose of it. The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission issues recalls of products made with lead. Check its website for updates.
Heavy metals cadmium, chromium and nickel add color to cosmetics. Alarmingly, the same is true for lead.
Last year, scientists with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration tested 150 cosmetics for heavy metals. They detected lead in nearly every lipstick, mascara, blush, eye shadow and face paint they sampled.
Other tests have found lead in cosmetics such as traditional kohl and dark hair dyes.
Under current law, the FDA does not require companies to test their products for safety, so it’s up to shoppers to learn more. EWG’s Skin Deep database provides information for more than 64,000 products. Search with this tool to help avoid lead in your cosmetics.
- Talk to your pediatrician about your children’s exposure to lead. A simple blood test can reveal if you need to take action steps to reduce it.
- Healthy diets can block the absorption of lead. Serve meals that are low in fat and rich in calcium and iron. Dairy products and green vegetables help as well.
- The FDA advises that children and pregnant women should not eat candies imported from Mexico because of the risk of lead exposure. Talk to your doctor if you think your family may have eaten them.