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Lead around the house

MGR, in Cincinnati, OH asks...

My family and I live in an old house with peeling paint on the exterior. I have a 2 year old and a 6 year old. I've tested the pain and it contains lead. There is also lead in the dirt at the base the walls. I do not let the children play near the house or in the dirt. What is the likelihood my children could have high lead levels? Apart from eating lead flakes and playing in the dirt, what are the greatest threats to their health & development? My landlord now wants to paint the house, what are the responsibilities of him and the contractor regarding dispersion of the leaded dust? Are there regulations in the state of Ohio that protect my family?


Hello MGR,

Lead can be found nearly everywhere in the environment, including the air, water and soil.  Although lead occurs naturally in the earth’s crust, much of our exposure results from industrial activities, such as manufacturing.  In addition, lead is used (or was previously used) in a wide variety of products, including those found in and around our homes, such as paint, plumbing materials, gasoline, batteries, and cosmetics.  Residential lead-based paint was banned in 1978 by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (see CPSC Lead Paint Ban).  However, it is estimated that over 80% of the homes built before 1978 contain some lead-based paint.  Lead-based paint used on toys and furniture was similarly banned in 1978.

After it enters the body, lead can cause neurological damage and can delay development in children, depending on the level of exposure.  The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reports that children ages 6 and younger are the most vulnerable to lead.   A frequently-asked questions page is available on the EPA website specifically addressing the most common questions asked about health effects attributable to exposure to lead paint (see Lead in Paint FAQ) if you would like additional information on this topic. 

Exposure to lead can occur through a variety of pathways.  Ingestion of paint flakes and dirt, inhalation and ingestion of dust, and ingestion of contaminated drinking water are common among children as lead tastes sweet.  To reduce your children’s exposure to lead, keep them away from contaminated dirt, remove shoes before entering the house, and remove or cover leaded paint.  Painting the exterior of your home is one of the best ways to prevent exposure to the lead from the existing paint.  Additionally, if your home is more than 70 years old, it likely contains some lead plumbing.  Testing your home’s water can show if your water supply contains trace amounts of lead.  Lead in drinking water can be greatly reduced by running the water until it is cold or through use of a pour-through pitcher or other home filter system with a lead reduction rating. Labs verify the lead reduction using methods in NSF/ANSI Standard 53, which must be printed on the product packaging.

In addition to minimizing direct exposure to lead from paint and other sources, the EPA recommends that your children eat at least three meals per day, particularly foods rich in iron and calcium (see What parents need to know). This type of diet will greatly reduce the amount of lead being absorbed into their bodies. Consumption of fatty and fried foods should also be restricted as these foods are known to increase the absorption of lead in the body.  

Your pediatrician can administer a simple blood test to determine if your children have been exposed to lead and to estimate their blood levels of lead.  The reference level at which U.S. Centers for Disease Control recommend public health actions be considered is 5 micrograms per deciliter of blood (µg/dL). The Ohio Department of Health runs the Ohio Healthy Homes and Lead Poisoning Program, which has published a helpful brochure that includes a list of criteria that you and your family can review together to determine whether this testing might be necessary for your children (see Ohio Healthy Homes brochure). If you do get your children tested and find that they have been exposed, several treatment options are available, which are described in the brochure. 

Under the Renovation, Repair and Painting Rule administered by the EPA, federal law requires that anyone hired to renovate, repair, or do paint preparation on a house built before 1978 (that a child under 6 visits regularly) be certified and follow specific work practices to prevent lead contamination.  Outdoor paint renovation should include ground covers.  Any sanding equipment requires a shroud and HEPA vacuum attachment.  More information on your rights as a tenant and how to keep your family safe during this type of renovation can be found here. Additionally, you can also verify that a contractor is certified by checking EPA’s website or by calling the National Lead Information Center at 1-800-424-LEAD (5323) or ask to see a copy of the contractor’s firm certification.

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