In the world of toxic chemical reform, reduction in lead exposure is often cited as a public health success story. Unfortunately, recent events have made it clear that lead exposure is far from last century’s problem, and far from only Flint’s problem.
Over the past forty years, blood lead concentrations in American children have declined dramatically following the elimination of lead from gasoline, paints, and other consumer products. Still, across the US, more than half a million children ages 1 through 5 suffer lead poisoning, according to estimates from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Lead is a potent toxin that can affect nearly every system in the body. While all of us can be affected, children and babies in the womb are the most vulnerable. Children exposed to lead at a young age are more likely to suffer from shorter attention spans and are less able to read and learn than their peers. Scientists have found that there’s no safe level of lead for our children. Even the slightest exposure impacts a child’s brain development, resulting in irreversible damage. At the same time, the severity of symptoms caused by lead depends on the amount of exposure.
In children, lead exposure increases risk of:
- damage to the brain and nervous system,
- slowed growth and development,
- learning and behavior problems (e.g., reduced IQ, ADHD, juvenile delinquency, and criminal behavior), and
- hearing and speech problems.
In adults, lead exposure can cause:
- high blood pressure, anemia,
- kidney damage,
- fatigue & impaired concentration,
- miscarriage, stillbirth, and
- decreased sperm production.
How We’re Exposed
We can be exposed to lead by breathing contaminated air or dust, drinking or bathing with contaminated water, eating contaminated foods or coming into contact with consumer products that contain lead. Children can also be exposed by eating lead paint chips or playing in contaminated soil.
Scientists amassed evidence on lead’s health effects for decades before it was banned in consumer paint, most gasoline and water pipes. Most exposure still comes from the presence of these old sources but lead is also still allowed in many consumer products.
Paint – While lead was banned from use in consumer paint in 1978, it remains on the walls of many American homes, especially in low-income areas. For America’s children, living in a home with lead paint is the most widespread and dangerous source of high-dose exposure. Paint containing lead can chip off the walls and be eaten by children, deteriorate into household dust and even contaminate surrounding soil where children play.
Water – Lead can leach into water from lead-soldered joints or leaded pipes. The Safe Drinking Water Act restricted new uses of lead in service lines and plumbing fixtures in 1986 but many older service lines, pipes and fixtures are still in use. To combat leaching, local water systems are required to implement corrosion controls. They’re also required to test water at local taps regularly. But as we saw in Flint, these measures aren’t always implemented properly, exposing Americans to lead in the water they use for drinking, cooking, mixing baby formula and bathing.
Soil and Dust – Products containing lead can break down and spread into our air, water, soil and household dust—and stay there for years. As part of normal play and hand-to-mouth exploratory activities, children can ingest lead that’s been deposited in dust or soil. This lead often comes from old sources, such as paint and past emissions from leaded gasoline. But there are still ongoing releases of lead to the environment, such as the accidental release of lead wheel balancing weights onto our roadways. Because of these weights, high concentrations of lead are consistently found on roadways and in end-of-life vehicle waste.
Toys – The 2008 Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act limits the total lead content in a children’s product sold in the U.S. to 100 parts per million (0.01 percent), and lead in paint and surface coatings on children’s products to 90 ppm (0.009 percent). However, lead can be found in old toys manufactured before lead restrictions were put in place. For instance, it can be present in paint on the outside of old toys and also in some vinyl.
Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC) Products – In addition to vinyl toys, lead has also been found in other vinyl products, such as the plastic that insulates electronic cables, shower curtains, plastic backpacks and even garden hoses.
Jewelry – The Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act limits the total lead content in children’s products, including kids’ jewelry, to 0.01 percent. However, children may put jewelry items containing lead that are intended for teenagers and adults in their mouths and could even swallow small pieces. Testing has found that many pieces of costume jewelry contain lead at levels above the level allowed in children’s products.
Artificial Turf – In testing, some artificial turf fields have been shown to contain high levels of lead. This may be due to the fact that many fields use “crumb rubber” from recycled tires as infill. Analysis by the New Jersey Department of Health and Senior Services indicates that older fields that have been weathered and used frequently are more likely to break down into dust and expose those playing on the field to lead. Touching a contaminated field or equipment that has touched it can expose players, especially if they touch and eat food without washing their hands.
Workplaces – Workers can be exposed to lead through mining and scrap metal processing. They can also be exposed during the manufacture of products containing lead, such as rechargeable automobile batteries, ammunition and radiation shielding. Workers exposed to lead on the job can bring it home on clothing and shoes, exposing their family members.
Hobbies – Some hobbies, such as making stained glass and casting ammunition and fishing weights, involve using lead directly. In addition, leaded gasoline is still used in some race cars, airplanes and off-road vehicles. On top of exposing hobbyists, this gasoline can affect people who live near small airports and racetracks.
Food – Small amounts of lead have been found in many food products. Lead deposited in the environment can be absorbed by plants being grown for food or get deposited on their surfaces. In addition, improper processing, such as drying, storing and grinding ingredients, contaminate food. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) monitors the lead content in food.
For a full list of potential sources of lead exposure, please see this Centers for Disease Control and Prevention page.
Tips to Protect Your Family
Watch for lead paint. If you live in a home built before 1978, it is likely to contain lead-based paint. If the paint is chipping, peeling, or otherwise deteriorating, or if you want to remodel, hire a certified abatement worker to remove or contain contaminated paint. Use doormats, remove shoes at the door, and vacuum and clean regularly to reduce lead that accumulates in house dust.
Protect drinking water. Avoid exposure to lead that may be leaching from plumbing by flushing your cold water pipes (run water until it becomes as cold as it will get) before drinking, and only use cold water for drinking or cooking. Your local water utility may provide free water testing. To learn about home water filters certified to reduce lead, see the NSF guide.
Test your soil for lead. If you’re building a garden (urban gardens in particular) test the soil before planting food.
Avoid PVC. Choose alternatives to products made of PVC, which often contain lead, especially for items that are likely to come into direct contact with children’s hands and mouths, such as toys, teethers, and lunchboxes. Old toys and furniture made prior to 1978 may also contain lead-based paint. For consumer product safety information and recalls for lead products, visit the Consumer Product Safety Commission’s website.
Watch for lead in dishware. Do not use old, imported, or homemade ceramic dishware, unless you know that the glazes do not contain lead. Avoid leaded crystal, as well as imported food cans, which can contain lead solder.
Upgrade Standards for Tap Water: When water is corrosive, lead leaches from municipal service lines or the lead plumbing in a building. The EPA’s Lead and Copper Rule (LCR), established in 1991 under the federal Safe Drinking Water Act, requires public water systems to monitor and report lead and copper in drinking water that may result from corrosion of household plumbing or a water distribution system components. Water systems are currently required under the rule to take corrective action to control corrosion and to inform the public if lead concentrations exceed 15 parts per billion or copper concentrations exceed 1.3 parts per million in more than 10% of customer taps sampled. Before the crisis in Flint made it clear why such regulations are needed, EPA was in the process of reviewing the LCR for the first time since 2007, with proposed revisions to the rule promised in 2017, and a final rule due in 2018. EPA should expedite revisions to the rule, and the updated rule should set a health-protective, enforceable standard for lead; remove old lead service lines completely; ensure effective communication of risks to customers; require better sampling and monitoring of tap water, and ensure corrosion controls.
Provide Necessary Funding Levels to Eliminate Exposure Sources: Federal investment in water infrastructure has decreased year after year, with lead leaching from older water lines and plumbing the end result. Public concern has led to a number of opportunities in proposed authorization bills and during the Congressional appropriations process to provide communities and homeowners with the funds needed to update our aging water infrastructure, replace older plumbing and paint. Proposals include emergency funding for affected communities like Flint, authorizations to dramatically increase State Revolving Funds, grant programs to assist schools and child care centers to test for lead and inform their communities about the results, and tax credits for homeowners to replace lead fixtures and remove lead paint.
Update Federal Lead Poisoning Prevention Standards: In 2009, in response to a petition from National Center for Healthy Housing, the Alliance for Healthy Homes, the Sierra Club and others, EPA agreed to re-examine current hazards standards and to work with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to modify the definition of lead-based paint in its regulations. The agencies should also promulgate regulations to update the standards for lead-contaminated dust and lead-contaminated soil, to align federal regulations with the C.D.C.’s standards and the prevailing science, to ensure that a lead hazard is identified before a child moves into a federally subsidized housing unit.
Eliminate additional sources of lead exposure: In 2009, Safer Chemicals Healthy Families partners at the Ecology Center and Sierra Club filed a citizen petition calling on EPA to establish regulations prohibiting the manufacture, processing, and distribution in commerce of lead wheel balancing weights.” Lead wheel weight failure (weights falling off rims into roadways) is one of the largest ongoing releases of lead to the environment. Lead is consistently found to be in high concentrations on roadways and in end-of-life, vehicle waste (commonly called Auto Shredder Residue – “ASR”). EPA granted the petition and agreed to commence proceedings on a rulemaking in August 2009, but did not commit to a date certain for the phase-out. Other sources of lead exposure that should be regulated include paint used on cars, boats and some buildings even though non-lead alternatives are available. The gasoline used in smaller propeller-driven airplanes contains lead, exposing people living near small airports.