LEAD: Simple Steps to Reduce Lead Exposure in the Home

Looking for some simple steps to reduce lead exposure in the home?  You’ve come to the right place.

Lead in the home can come froma variety of sources.  The largest source is lead based paint used prior to 1978.  Another source is someone who brings lead into the home from work or a hobby.  Wind blown dust is also a source.  Lead is deposited in soils in our environment from its historical use in gasoline.  But lead also ends up in our soils from weathering of buildings, bridges and other structures and from industrial sources such as lead smelters, hazardous waste sites and construction.  This lead contaminated dust can be tracked into our homes on our shoes, or can be blown into our homes.  Other sources include painted toys, certain hobbies, and old mini blinds and other polyvinyl chloride products.  Some jewelry, herbal remedies and candies also have lead, but those sources generally aren’t a major contributor to dust in the home (although they can pose a significant risk of exposure since they can be ingested).

If you have a home built prior to 1978 and the paint is in poor condition, the paint must be addressed.  Paint in good condition doesn’t usually pose a risk, except around friction points (door and window jambs) or if you are going to be remodeling.

In the interim, here are some simple steps to reduce exposure:  

  • Get your home tested.  If you are concerned, you may want to get your home tested.  Testing can be expensive.  There are some home based lead check test kits.  But, these are not recommended by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) because they cannot distinguish between high and low levels of lead.  They generally work by rubbing a swab on the surface.  The tip changes color if lead is present.  They tell you only whether lead is present.  They cannot detect paint below the surface.  The EPA doesn’t recommend them also because they can give both false positives and false negatives.  However, they are a quick, inexpensive initial screen to detect problems.  Another relativaly inexpensive, but more accurate test, is a lead dust wipe.  With a lead dust wipe, you collect a wipe sample pursuant to a specified procedure and send it to a certified laboratory.  These can tell you more accurately the levels of lead present in surface dust.  The National Safety Council offers a lead dust test kit that includes everything needed to determine the presence of lead in the home.  Download the form at http://www.nsc.org/issues/lead/orderformleadkits.pdf.

  • Wet wipe regularly.  Lead dust is very fine, is invisible to the the eye, and tends to stick to surfaces.  You need to wet wipe, but don’t use scouring pads or abrasive cleans.  Use a soft cloth or wipe, and an all purpose cleaner.  Make sure you always have a clean surface –  you don’t want to just spread the dust around.  Wet wash by making a soapy solution using a small amount of soap.  If you are pretty sure you have lead dust present and want to do a base cleaning, follow this:  create a mild soapy solution.  Use a disposable paper towel to dip into the soapy solution and then wipe the surface clean.  Throw away the towel and start again with a new one until the whole area is clean.  Follow this cleaning up with new paper towels wet with fresh water and wipe the surface again to get the soap residue and any remaining dust off of the surface.  Use this three-step process to clean one room in the house at a time before moving on to the next room. 

  • Vacuum properly.  Use a vacuum equipped with a  high efficiency particular air (HEPA) filter.  A HEPA filter is a special filter that can trap very fine dust particles.  Vacuuming with a regular household vacuum will not remove the very small dust particles in the home that can poison children.  Much of the dust that is picked up is blown back out the exhaust of the vacuum, which resettles on toys, furniture, and floors where small children become exposed.  A vacuum with a dirt finder (a light that tells you where the dirt is) can save you time, and a vacuum with a power brush/head is six times more effective than a vacuum without a power brush/head.  If the whole house is being HEPA vacuumed for the first time, start in the room farthest from the main entrance/exit door so that dirt is not tracked into areas that have already been HEPA cleaned.  Vacuum from room to room working toward the main entrance/exit door and finish there.  If only one room is being HEPA vacuumed, work from the farthest area from the door and finish at the doorway.  A dust guru recommends this time-consuming process: to remove the deep dust, each week make 25 passes over the door mat and the area of the rug within four feet of the main entrance doors, 16 passes over areas that receive a lot of foot traffic, and eight passes over the rest of the carpet.  After vacuuming this way for a few weeks, you can switch to weekly vacuuming with one half the passes.  If you can’t manage that, then at least do a deep clean in the room in which your baby spends the most time (and I can’t imagine having that much time).

  • Wash your hands and make sure your children wash their hands too!  Washing hands can remove lead contaminated dust.

  • Maintain your paint.  If your home was built before 1978, keep your paint well maintained.  Adjust any doors or windows that may be rubbing.  Just make sure you do this safely.

  • Abate the lead.  You can consider permanently eliminating lead based paint hazards in older homes.  There are four options:  replacement of lead painted items, enclosure of lead painted surfaces, such as by installing dry wall over painted surface, encapsulation of lead painted surfaces using a special coating designed to encapsulated lead, or removal of lead based paint.  Abatement must be done be a certified contractor.  If you have an older home, do not renovate/remodel without addressing lead based paint hazards and the generation of lead dust.

  • Plant shrubs.  If you have an older home, with dirt close to the home under windows, consider planting shrubs in these areas to prevent your baby from playing in the dirt.  Dirt under “friction points” in older homes is more likely to be contaminated with lead.

  • Import clean topsoil.  If you garden and your home was built before 1978, bring in clean topsoil for your garden.   

  • Buy a good quality doormat or take off your shoes.  This will keep dust from being tracked into the home.  Supposedly, 80% of the dirt in our homes comes from outside.  So, keep it out!

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