Lead, a naturally occurring mineral, is a byproduct of the refining of silver, gold and other minerals. The earliest evidence of lead predates the Bronze and Iron Ages. Its earliest known use was in a necklace, that was unearthed in Turkey by archeologists, approximately 6,500 B.C..

The ancient Greeks and Egyptians used lead in different ways. They produced lead jars and placed vinegar in them. Then, they warmed the jars in manure piles. In time, the acidity of the vinegar would disintegrate the lead jar leaving behind a white powder. This white powder was the first-white lead pigmenting, which is the basis for lead paint. The white-pigmented lead would be used in paints for millenniums, until its banning in the United States in 1978.

The Romans were the first known people to use lead in plumbing systems. They used lead to line the aquifers that carried water from far off mountains to many Roman cities. In the cities, the Romans made rudimentary pipe and plumbing systems, which they fashioned from lead. In fact the Latin word for "Lead" is plumbum, from which the word "plumbing" originates. The ancient Romans also believed that the consumption of lead pills served medicinal purposes. Today, we have heard of, and may even possess leaded crystal vases, pitchers, and tableware. Steuben and Waterford are known for their priceless leaded crystal objects. Some of these can be detrimental to oneís health. When leaded-crystal wine goblets are filled with wine, the acid present in the wine releases the lead used in the manufacture of the glass goblets. Another harmful product used not too long ago, was leaded gasoline. In 1921, Generals Motors researchers determined that when lead was added to gasoline, it would stop pinging and knocking in Cadillac engines. From then on, until it ceased to be produced in 1995, leaded gasoline would be the standard car fuel.

Some of the most important characteristics, which made lead so attractive are: Its low-melting point, abundance, malleability and durability. The difficulty with it is that, once it is extracted from the ground and processed, to any degree, it is virtually indestructible. Once processed, lead becomes highly toxic and never looses its toxicity. In sum, lead's toxicity is due to the intervention of man.

Lead's toxic nature was recognized as early as 2,000 B.C.. In the 2nd century B.C., much of Rome's affluent class suffered from lead-induced gout. In the 17th century a German physician noticed that monks who did not drink wine from leaded goblets were not coming down with colic, as opposed to those who ate and drank from these vessels. Another example of leadís toxicity was the Devon Colic, caused by the presence of lead in cider. For centuries, workers in all steps of the paint manufacturing process and its application, were sent to the hospital, many times within their first month of employment, and diagnosed with lead poisoning. This became known as the paintersí colic. Probably, the most famous case of lead poisoning is that of Ludwig von Beethoven.

Although much time has passed since then, the health effects from over exposure to lead have not. Today, both adults and children suffer from the effects of lead poisoning. Children, under the age of six, and pregnant women are the groups most at risk. This is because the human body is fooled by the presence of lead. Leadís toxicity to humans, comes from its ability to mimic other biologically important metals, such as calcium, iron and zinc, for instance. The bodily processes don't break down, metabolize or absorb lead, as it does other minerals. The amount of lead absorption in peopleís bodies depends on the amount of their exposure to it. However, children and pregnant women can absorb up to 50% of the lead they are exposed to.

A child under the age of six grows rapidly. Likewise, the human life in the womb of a pregnant woman grows at a fast rate. Because of this, they are more susceptible. Once inhaled or ingested, the lead moves into the soft tissues such as the brain and kidneys, and inhibits the growth of red blood cells. Once present, lead in a childís body can cause learning disabilities, such as A.D.D.,(attention deficit disorders), behavioral problems, stunted growth, impaired hearing and kidney damage. Mental retardation and comas have also been caused by over exposure to lead. Pregnant women transfer this lead to the fetus and it is absorbed by the baby.

In adults, lead can increase blood pressure, cause infertility problems, nerve disorders, muscle and joint pain, irritability and memory problems. Lead in the blood stream is measured in micrograms of lead per deciliter. The CDC considers any blood lead level of 10 micrograms per deciliter or greater, an elevated reading and a cause for concern. At a reading of 20 or greater, it is considered lead poisoning.

In the home, there are many ways of coming in contact with lead or its remains. The discussion that will follow, will deal with lead in the manufacture of paint products and lead that can be ingested from the water we drink, however.

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As a boy, I used to go to the Jersey shore, on the southern side, of the Raritan Bridge, on the Garden State Parkway. Along the way, I would see a large billboard, advertising Dutch Boy Paints. The billboard portrayed a little "Dutch Boy," in blue overalls with a blonde bowl haircut. The billboard had a moving arm with a multi colored paint brush.

This was the logo for the National Lead Company. The portrayal of a healthy little Dutch Boy was used to promote its lead-based paint products for decades. The slogan read, "there is no worry when fingerprint smudges or dirt spots when applied with Dutch Boy white lead."

The "Dutch Process," used to create lead paint was developed in the 1600s, was very similar to the method the ancient Greeks and Egyptians used millennium before. Lead buckles would be corroded with acid in the presence of carbon dioxide. An acid, which was usually vinegar, would transform the solid lead buckles, and within a few weeks a white powder would form on the remaining lead. The yielded white powder, was white pigmented lead. This powder was the basic element of lead paint.

The Lead Industry Association in the United States portrayed happy children in advertisements, decades after the health risks of lead had been revealed. It claimed that lead based paint lasted longer and it was easier to maintain. In contrast, most European countries had banned its use in residencies by 1921. It is estimated that by 1977, over 50,000,000 tons of lead paint were used in American homes.

Stain, 50/50 lead and linseed oil
There existed superior alternatives to lead-based products since the late 1800's, in titanium dioxide and lithopone. However, in 1954, the federal government did not legislate change, due to the overbearing pressure applied by the lead industry. A voluntary standard would gradually restrict the use of lead in paint, but no federal regulations would occur until 1972. The legislation, commonly known, in the real estate industry today, would not ban the use of lead in paint until 1978. The final cans of paint produced before the ban would not disappear from store shelves until about 1980.

What is being done today
Many of older homes in the New England area have multiple layers of paint. Although covered with subsequent layers of oil or latex, the original layers of lead still pose a risk. Children at the early stages of life, tend to place objects in their mouth. If chipping or peeling paint condition exists in the home, they may place objects that contain lead paint in their mouths. In performing a home inspection, one ought to look for the presence of lead based paint on wall surfaces. If these are undisturbed, there isnít any need for concern.

Other risks of exposure are rubbing or sanding doors or windows, which were originally painted with lead paint. As a door or window is opened or closed, this sanding action releases fine dust particles in the air, allowing them to be inhaled. A major producer of lead dust in the air is the demolition of walls and ceilings, when rooms or houses are remodeled. Whether sanding a surface or tearing down a wall, a contractor should encapsulate the area, so that the dust is not released into the air. If a contractor fails to use safe containment procedures, both he and the homeowner can be held liable in a court of law. When a client is concerned about the existence of lead paint in his property, he or she should hire a licensed environmental contractor to perform a lead inspection.

H.U.D. defines "lead paint" as, having greater than 1 microgram per square centimeter of surface. In 1980, H.U.D. estimated that 83% of the private and 86% of the public housing, had measurable levels of lead. However, as far as worker exposure is concerned, any detectable measure of lead, makes it lead paint. There are two methods that can be used to test surfaces for lead--X-ray fluorescence or paint chip analysis.

The X-ray fluorescence inspection is performed at the house being examined. This process involves the use of an instrument, which takes an X-ray of the layers of paint present on a wall or painted surface. It measures the amount of lead on a painted surface, in micrograms per square centimeter. A qualified inspector, gathers multiple samples of paint from each room, to get an accurate picture of the presence of lead.

The paint chip analysis test is called Atomic Absorption. In this test, paint chip samples are gathered at the property and sent to a laboratory, where the percent of lead in the material sampled will be determined.

If lead is determined to be present and clients or homeowners want to remove any potential threat to themselves and their family, they can take one of three courses of action. It is important to remember that much care should be taken in the removal of lead paint. If it is done improperly, paint removal can actually increase the level of lead contamination in the air and the risk of exposure to the body. The following, are measures that can be taken:

  1. Encapsulation--covering painted surfaces with a special, cement-like coating, which adheres to the lead base painted surface. This method is the least expensive alternative. However, under certain conditions, exposure to the original lead painted surfaces is still possible.
  2. Enclosure--placing a permanent barrier, on top of the original surface, eliminates exposure. For instance, paneling or sheet rock, placed on top or over the original surface make contact with lead paint more difficult.
  3. Replacementóremoving contaminated surfaces properly and replacing them with new surfaces.

Safety Pointers

  • Keep young children away from construction or alterations;
  • Fully enclose any room, where work is being conducted;
  • Use a proper respirator;
  • Use a wet-based, method of paint removal and proper a HEPA air filtering system;
  • Remove as many doors, windows, or pieces of trim and have a paint stripping company remove the surface;
  • Maintain all existing painted surfaces to reduce exposure to older layers of lead based paint.

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Lead does not occur naturally in drinking water. However, not unlike the ancient Romans, we, too, can be exposed to lead through the water that we drink. This may happen when water is in contact with the plumbing systems installed in our houses. Lead has been used in pipe solder, to connect copper pipe joints and in the brass and bronze plumbing fixtures in sinks, as well as in main water piping, coming in from the street, from the local municipal water supply company. It enters the body, primarily, from the corroding or the wearing away of the materials containing lead in the water distribution system. Dissolved oxygen, low pH (acidity) and low mineral content in water are common causes of corrosion. Lead leaches out into the water, when the water has been allowed to stand in the pipes for any length of time.

The Environmental Protection Agency, estimates that drinking water is the source of about 20 percent of lead exposure in Americans. The use of lead was prohibited in 1986. Today, faucets and plumbing fixtures may still, legally, contain 8 percent lead. Solder may contain up to 0.2%. The maximum allowable contaminant level is 15 parts per billion. If the quantity of lead measured in drinking water exceeds this, the following precautions are suggested:

When water stands in plumbing systems that contain lead for several hours, the lead may dissolve into the drinking water. The first draw of water, after it has sat in the pipes for several hours, may contain higher quantities of lead. The homeowner ought to flush the system. The best solution is to let the water run from the tap, until the water being supplied gets noticeably colder; usually 15-30 seconds.

The proper steps for determining the presence of lead in drinking water are: Select the faucet, from which the water sample is to be drawn, six to eighteen hours in advance. If possible, use the kitchen sink faucet, since the water for cooking and drinking is dispensed mostly from this tap. Run cold water, at this faucet, for not less than 10 minutes. Do not use this faucet again until the time of sampling. The examiner will draw the first sample of water from the faucet and fill a bottle with it.

To further test the water, a second sample should be taken. (It is my practice, to do this.) As with the first sample, the water is to be flushed out of the plumbing system, by running it from the faucet. The second test provides the client with a more accurate sample of his or her water. When the lead-contaminated water is passed through the plumbing system, the remaining water is, then, safer to drink.

Additional information about Lead provided by the United States Environmental Protection Agency (http://www.epa.gov/lead/)

Lead is a highly toxic metal that was used for many years in products found in and around our homes. Lead may cause a range of health effects, from behavioral problems and learning disabilities, to seizures and death. Children 6 years old and under are most at risk, because their bodies are growing quickly.

Research suggests that the primary sources of lead exposure for most children are:
- deteriorating lead-based paint,
- lead contaminated dust, and
- lead contaminated residential soil.

EPA is playing a major role in addressing these residential lead hazards. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), in 1978 there were 13.5 million children in the United States with elevated blood lead levels (i.e., 10Ķg/dl). By 2002, that number had dropped to 310,000 kids. While we still have a significant challenge, EPA is very proud of how federal, state, tribal, and private sector partners have coordinated efforts with the public to better protect our children.

Since the 1980's, EPA and its federal partners have phased out lead in gasoline, reduced lead in drinking water, reduced lead in industrial air pollution, and banned or limited lead used in consumer products, including residential paint. States and municipalities have set up programs to identify and treat lead poisoned children and to rehabilitate deteriorated housing. Parents, too, have greatly helped to reduce lead exposures to their children by cleaning and maintaining homes, having their children's blood lead levels checked, and promoting proper nutrition. The Agency's Lead Awareness Program continues to work to protect human health and the environment against the dangers of lead by developing regulations, conducting research, and designing educational outreach efforts and materials.

This site provides information about lead, lead hazards, and provides some simple steps to protect your family. For basic information start with the links to the right. For more specific information, and to search for and download documents use the links on the left. You can speak to an information specialist by contacting The National Lead Information Center (NLIC) at 1-800-424-LEAD (5323).


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