Home & Garden Columns

About the House: Be Aware of Lead Poisoning in Older Homes By MATT CANTOR

Friday March 03, 2006

Writing this column is going to be harder than usual. It’s no fun. I like talking about how people screw things up and sometimes it’s funny and sometimes it’s just exasperating but what I have to talk about today is genuinely tragic. Please bear with me because it’s extremely important. 

Kids are getting sick. Lots of them, and it’s something that’s preventable. Lead poisoning has affected over 4,000 kids in Alameda county in the last 14 years and that’s just the ones we know about. In 2004, only 42 percent of the Medi-Cal enrolled children in Alameda County had been screened for lead. That means that there are probably a lot more kids who are being affected than we know about. 

These figures came to me from Julie Twichell of the Alameda County Lead Poisoning Prevention Program, based in Oakland. Before I go on let me give you their website, www.aclppp.org, because she and her compatriots are here for you. Check out the website. It’s very useful and simple and direct. 

I ended up talking to Julie because of Berkeley’s own Lynda Daily, who coordinates Berkeley’s Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention Program. She too is available at ldailey@ci.berkeley.ca.us and can help to answer questions and direct you to what can be done. 

Let’s look briefly at what is happening and then we can talk a little about what can be done. 

First, children 6 and under are at the greatest risk. It’s hard to find hard numbers on exactly which sources of lead are greatest for children but it looks like the remnants of lead paint is the primary culprit. We’ll talk later about some other sources you should know about. 

When people prepare to paint and don’t know any better they often scrape and (here the worst one) sand old surfaces that are almost sure to contain lead paint if they are from before 1978. That’s almost every house I see in Berkeley. Yes, we have a few newer homes but 80 percent of the housing in Alameda County fits this description and I think the numbers for Berkeley must be over 90 percent. Many people don’t realize this and when they sand and scrape the old paint off in preparation for painting, they release lead particles that come to rest in the environment. 

Small children are very oral and very manual/oral. In other words, they explore the world with their hands and their mouths and if the house has lead dust and chips (which themselves get broken down to dust), they ingest lead. This may sound hard to achieve but apparently it’s very common.  

There are at least two different ways in which this problem is exacerbated. The first is that lead is sweet and infants who gnaw on lead woodwork, which is another common means of ingestion, may be getting an extra incentive to continue since it tastes good. The Romans apparently used to put lead ethanoate (also called ‘lead acetate’ or ‘sugar of lead’) into their drinks as a sweetener. Holy moley, that sure seems like a bad idea. The madness of Caligula is thought to have been the result of lead poisoning and it may be that much of Rome’s downfall can be linked to this tragic misjudgment. 

There is also what is called Pica behavior, which involves the eating of a range of inappropriate materials including clay for reasons that are generally not obvious. Some scientists believe that this is a confused attempt to obtain some needed nutrient. Clay eating has long been observed and is sanctioned in some cultures. Pica behavior may be the result of malnutrition or possibly an undetected dietary need that the subject may be trying to fill.  

Whatever the reason, children are eating lead. They may not be aware that they are doing it but the consequences are extremely dire. At the low end of the spectrum is attention deficit and other learning and behavioral failings. At the further end is mental retardation, kidney illness and death. Some signs to look for in lead poisoning include: headaches, irritability, vomiting, weight loss, slowed speech and hyperactivity. 

If you live in a house built prior to 1978 and have a child 6 or under and especially if it’s a house from before 1950 please have your child tested for lead. It’s a simple blood test your pediatrician can perform. 

If you’re thinking about painting, just wash the wall and paint over on the inside. If you want a more thorough job, and many of us do, please have a professional do the job and make sure they protect your home and their workers in the process. Ask questions before you start and bring up the L-word. Make sure they know the rules. Make sure that the house is clean of all lead dust when they get done. Talk to the ACLPPP to be sure what you need to know. 

If you own a home in Berkeley, Albany, Emeryville or Oakland, there are some impressive services that the ACLPPP have available to you including free site visits, lead testing of the site and classes for homeowners on how to safely remodel (paint, etc.).  

There are lead testing kits one can obtain and even a special HEPA vacuum for rental if you choose to do some work on your own home. There are also free classes for professionals at various levels of complexity and there are even special services available to landlords. It seems that the community is responding to a serious need in a serious way … so we can have hope. 

A few other things to be aware of that have little to do with construction but may help to prevent a tragedy. Lead is found in Kohl, a popular black eye makeup from Pakistan, India, and Saudi Arabia (as well as other countries in the region). Kohl samples have been found to sometimes contain up to 50 percent lead and this makeup is sometimes used on small children. Vinyl mini-blinds may contain lead as well as some vinyl toys. Apparently, lead is used in the making of vinyl and it can remain accessible to a chewing child. 

Turmeric can contain lead, depending on where it comes as well as the glazes on some ceramics. 

Clearly it’s important to get informed. 

The primary concern is clearly for those things that are in the child’s field of access. What they can grab and chew on, where they play and crawl. 

There are so many things to fear that it’s easy to get freaked out by something like this. It’s also easy for us to feel like we don’t do enough as parents. Here’s my message. Don’t sand the surfaces inside your house and if you have a small child, have them get a blood test for lead. The rest is small stuff and you’re not supposed to sweat that.