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Lead is a naturally occurring element found in small amounts in the earth’s crust. While it has some beneficial uses, it can be toxic to humans and animals. Lead is particularly dangerous to children because their growing bodies absorb more lead than adults do and their brains and nervous systems are more sensitive to the damaging effects of lead. Babies and young children can also be more highly exposed to lead because they often put their hands and other objects that can have lead from dust or soil on them into their mouths.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), today at least 4 million households have children living in them that are being exposed to high levels of lead. There are approximately half a million U.S. children ages 1-5 with blood lead levels above 5 micrograms per deciliter (µg/dL), the reference level at which CDC recommends public health actions be initiated. The latest statistics for childhood lead testing in Indiana are available from the Indiana State Department of Health.

Lead-based paint in older homes or other facilities is the most common source of lead exposure for U.S. children. U.S. EPA banned lead from paint in 1978. Lead-based paint most likely will be present in a home or child care if it was constructed or renovated before 1978, especially if it was built before 1950.

Health Effects

The long-term health effects of lead in children can be severe. Even small amounts can impact a child’s healthy development. Research has demonstrated that childhood exposure to unsafe lead levels can cause learning disabilities, decreased growth, hyperactivity, dizziness, clumsiness, impaired hearing, brain damage, paralysis, and convulsions. In pregnant women, lead exposure can pass through the body to the unborn child, resulting in miscarriage or birth defects.

Where is lead?

You may have lead around your building without knowing it because you can’t see, taste, or smell lead. Lead can be in:

  • Dust
  • Paint
  • Soil
  • Pipes
  • Drinking water
  • Mini-blinds
  • Food made with lead-contaminated water
  • Imported ceramic dishware and crystal glassware

Before scientists, health practitioners, and policy makers knew about lead’s harmful effects, it was used widely in paint, gasoline, water pipes, mini-blinds, and many other products. Now that the dangers of lead are known, most paint is lead-free, leaded gasoline is being phased out, and household plumbing no longer is made with lead materials. However, if lead is present in your building, it will not break down naturally. Lead remains a potential hazard until it is contained safely or removed properly.

Lead-Based Paint

Children are exposed to lead-based paint when they eat lead-based paint chips or inhale or ingest lead-based paint dust. Most businesses and homes built before 1950 contain heavily leaded paint. Some buildings constructed as recently as 1978 also may contain lead-based paint. This paint may be on window frames, window sills, walls, doors, door frames, stairs, railings, banisters, shelves, or bookcases. Outside, it can be found on porches, fences, exteriors of buildings, or in the soil.

Lead dust is a poison. It can form when lead-based paint is dry scraped or heated. Dust also forms when surfaces covered with lead-based paint are bumped or rubbed, such as opening a window or door. Settled lead dust can re-enter the air when you vacuum, sweep, or walk through an area. Children can inhale or ingest lead when they put their hands in their mouth after crawling on the carpet or floor where lead dust has been tracked.

Lead in soil can be a hazard when children play in bare soil. Also, people can bring lead-contaminated soil inside on their shoes, impacting indoor areas where children crawl and play. Lead in soil can come from paint chips that fall off buildings or fences, dust from the house exteriors, air deposits of leaded gasoline vapors, or discharges from lead smelters.

Lead-based paint that has been covered by several layers of water-based paint usually is not a hazard unless the paint is cracking or peeling. However, in friction areas, such as where doors and windows open and close, dust from lead-based paint, even several layers down, can be emitted into the air children breathe.

Things you can do to reduce exposure to lead from paint, dust, and soil:

  • Test at-risk children.
    • At-risk children are those who:
      • Live in low-income communities
      • Live or play in older housing, especially if the home is in poor condition or undergoing renovation
      • Have brothers, sisters, or playmates with high lead levels
      • Live with someone who is exposed to lead in the workplace or who has a hobby that uses lead (stained glass, pottery, etc.)
      • Live near a lead smelter, battery recycling plant, or other industry that releases lead into the air
      • Use hot water from the tap for cooking or drinking
      • Have a low iron count
      • Eat, drink, or cook from pottery or ceramicware containing lead.
      Encourage parents of children who may have been exposed to lead to get their children tested by their doctor, health center, or local health department. A simple blood test can detect high lead levels. These tests are inexpensive and sometimes free. Blood tests for lead are especially important for children between six months to six years of age. Treatment can range from changes in diet, to medication, or even a hospital stay in severe cases.
  • Leave lead-based paint alone before covering it.
    • Leave lead-based paint undisturbed if it is in good condition. DO NOT SCRAPE, SAND, OR BURN lead-based paint. Chemical removers involve a wet removal process, which is preferred; however, all chemical removers involve hazardous chemicals. Follow directions carefully and use the recommended protective equipment when using chemical removers. Remember, use a licensed contractor to perform all lead-based removal activities. A list of certified contractors is available from U.S. EPA.
  • Cover lead-based paint.
    • If you are not removing lead-based paint permanently, enclose the undisturbed lead-based paint with water-based paint, wall paper, or contact paper. Remember, covering high-friction areas, such as window sills, window frames, and door frames, will not prevent lead dust emitted from the lead-based paint underneath. Do not do this work when children are present.
  • Contact your landlord.
    • If you rent, notify your landlord of peeling or chipping paint.
  • Discard paint chips safely.
    • Clean up lead-based paint chips immediately with wet paper towels. When the paint chips or dust are wet, they will not emit lead dust. Discard in double-layered heavy-duty trash bags. Add enough water to the trash bag to dampen the paint chips and seal bags tightly. Discard bags in your normal trash collection.
  • Dust with wet rags or mops.
    • Clean window frames, window sills, and other surfaces that create friction when opened with wet rags or mops as often as necessary to pick up small chips or dust. Also Clean the floor, rug, or carpet around these friction areas. Use a mop or sponge with warm water and a general all-purpose cleaner. Thoroughly rinse sponges and mop heads with dish soap or an all-purpose cleaner after each cleaning.
  • Wet clean carpets annually.
    • Wet cleaning carpets where lead dust may accumulate will reduce children’s exposure to lead paint dust. However, make sure the carpeting dries thoroughly to prevent mold, which can cause asthma or irritate allergies.
  • Wash hands.
    • Children put just about anything in their mouths, including soil or paint chips. If you building is at risk for lead contamination, wash children’s hands often, especially before they eat, and before nap time and bed time. Prevent children from chewing or sucking on window sills, banisters, or other painted/stained surfaces.
  • Clean toys.
    • Keep play areas clean. Wash and sanitize bottles, pacifiers, toys, and stuffed animals regularly.
  • Use a door mat and wipe your shoes.
    • Clean or remove shoes before entering the building to avoid tracking in lead from potentially contaminated soil. Wash the door mat regularly (do not shake it out where children play) to help keep contaminants out of the building.
  • Check your mini-blinds.
    • If you have mini-blinds, contact the manufacturer to ensure your blinds are lead free. Replace mini-blinds that contain lead. Dust mini-blinds with a wet cloth if they contain lead or if you are not sure if they contain lead.
  • Eat healthfully.
    • Make sure children eat nutritious, low-fat foods that are high in iron and calcium. Examples include: spinach, low-fat dairy products, tofu and lean meats, such as pork. Children with healthy diets will absorb less lead.
  • Test your soil if your house or building is located near a lead smelter.
    • If your house or building is located near manufacturers (current or in the past) that use or used large amounts of lead, you should test your soil. In Indiana, U.S. EPA is working on multiple sites contaminated with lead by manufacturers, including:
      • American Lead Site, Indianapolis. The property was used for secondary lead smelting operations from 1946 to 1965. Historic operations at the smelter contaminated the surrounding community with lead.
      • West Calumet Housing Complex, East Chicago. The site includes part of the former USS Lead facility along with nearby commercial, municipal and residential areas. The primary contaminants of concern are lead and arsenic.
      • Jacobsville Neighborhood Soil Contamination Site, Evansville. Part of the Jacobsville neighborhood was formerly occupied by several manufacturing companies that date back to the 1880s. Lead has contaminated a wide area of soil. Some soil is also contaminated with arsenic. Site cleanup is ongoing.
      • For updates on additional active sites in Indiana, visit U.S. EPA.
      • IDEM monitors lead in the air at several sites around the state.
  • Consider getting a lead risk assessment.
    • Have your building and soil checked for lead hazards through a lead risk assessment. Lead risk assessors will take dust wipe, peeling paint, soil, and water samples for lab tests. If you do choose to have a lead risk assessment, it must be conducted by a licensed individual.

Lead in Drinking Water

Lead in drinking water is also a concern in some communities. High levels of lead in drinking water are a significant source of lead exposure for children. Some public water systems are facing a complex problem, due to aging pipes. Lead can be found in the pipes and/or plumbing that carries water to its consumers. Homes, schools, and child care facilities on private well-water systems may be at greater risk for lead in drinking water than facilities hooked up to public utilities. Lead levels are likely to be high if your building has any of the following:

  • Lead pipes
  • Copper pipes with lead solder (material used to unite pipes)
  • Brass faucets or fittings

Even if you are hooked up to a city or town water supply, which treats drinking water for contaminants, lead still can enter your drinking water through your building’s own plumbing.

A surprising fact: data indicate that the newer the building, the greater the risk of lead contamination in the water. Why? Lead levels in water pipes decrease as the building ages. Over time, mineral deposits coat the inside of pipes, which insulate the water from the solder. During the first several years after construction, before this coating forms, water is in direct contact with the lead in the solder. This coating may form more rapidly if you have hard water.

Buildings that are very old also are at high risk for lead-contaminated drinking water. Plumbing installed before 1930 most likely contains lead pipes or solder. Copper pipes have replaced lead pipes in most plumbing; however, the use of lead solder to connect the pipes is widespread. In fact, experts regard lead solder as the major cause of lead contamination in drinking water today.

U.S. EPA’s Office of Ground Water and Drinking Water reports that brass fittings and plumbing fixtures that contain 8% or less lead have been found to contribute high lead levels for a considerable period of time after their installation. To learn if your brass faucet meets safe drinking water standards, contact the NSF (National Sanitation Foundation) International or Underwriters Laboratory (UL).

You should be concerned that your water may have lead contamination if:

  • Your pipes or solder at the main shutoff valve are a dull gray metal that is soft enough to be scratched with a house key (these are probably lead pipes).
  • You see signs of corrosion, such as frequent leaks.
  • Your non-plastic plumbing was installed before 1986, the year lead solder was banned.

Things you can do to reduce lead in drinking water:

  • Use lead-free pipes and materials in new construction.
    • There are no state or federal laws that require businesses or homes to address lead in drinking water. However, under the Safe Drinking Water Act, U.S. EPA requires that utilities must ensure that water from a customer’s tap does not exceed 15 parts per billion of lead to water. In 1986, President Reagan signed amendments to the Act, requiring that “lead-free” pipes, solder, and flux must be used in the installation or repair of any public water system or plumbing in residential or non-residential facilities connected to a public water system. This ban of lead material in drinking water systems applies only to new plumbing or repairs – not existing plumbing structures or pipes.
  • Flush your pipes before drinking or cooking.
    • Whenever water in a faucet has not been used for six or more hours, “flush” the cold-water pipes by running the water at least 30 seconds or until it becomes as cold as it will get. This could take as little as five to 30 seconds if there has been recent heavy water use, such as showering or toilet flushing. The more time the water has been in contact with pipes or fixtures containing lead, the more lead it may contain.
  • Use cold water for drinking or food preparation.
    • Use water from the cold-water tap only for drinking, cooking, and especially for making infant formula. Hot water can contain higher lead levels because lead dissolves more quickly in hot water. If you need hot water, draw water from the cold water tap then heat it. Boiling water will not eliminate lead contamination.
  • Get your water tested.
  • Contact your utility.
    • If you are served by a city or town water system, contact your supplier (the company on your water bill) and ask whether or not the supply system contains lead service lines, or if the system has been tested for lead. If either answer is yes, ask what the lead levels are in the system. If the levels are equal to or greater than 15 parts per billion, ask what steps the supplier is taking to address the lead contamination. Drinking water can be treated at the plant to make it less corrosive, and water mains and connections containing lead under the jurisdiction of the supplier can be replaced.
  • Treat your well.
    • If you own a well or another water source, you can treat the water to minimize lead contamination. IDEM recommends using corrosion control products. Contact your local county health department, NSF (National Sanitation Foundation) International, the Indiana State Department of Health, or IDEM’s Drinking Water Branch for assistance in finding these commercially available products.

Additional resources on lead in drinking water:

Additional Lead Poisoning Prevention Resources:

In Indiana, the Indiana State Department of Health (ISDH) Lead and Healthy Homes Program provides additional information on Indiana’s lead regulations, testing children’s lead levels, or becoming a licensed or certified lead professional. U.S. EPA provides a national perspective on the dangers of lead hazards.