On my first morning of the fifth grade, I got dressed for school from the comfort of a campground. My three sisters and I, along with our mom, had spent the summer living with my grandparents in another town while most days my dad donned a hazmat suit and worked steadily to remove lead paint from our ancient house. By the time the new school year rolled around, the job still wasn’t quite finished and it would be a couple of weeks before we could move back home.
My parents bought the house that I grew up in when I was six and the house was two-hundred and fifty-one. It was the early 1990s and if you ask my mom, she’ll tell you that my parents’ signing on the dotted line coincided nearly exactly with publication of the first in a series of major news stories aimed to raise public awareness about the hazards of lead paint. My parents were only the latest in a line of stewards of this New England farmhouse, chock full of the hazard. It was too late to back out of the purchase. A few years later and many admonishments to not touch the woodwork later, my dad tackled the project himself.
Without wanting to be an alarmist, the dangers of lead contamination in paint and soil and drinking water are pretty significant, especially for families with little kids. Lead exposure can lead to developmental and behavioral issues and delay both physical and mental development.
Since our own recent temporary move was caused by needing to have lead paint risks mitigated in our current apartment, I thought it might be helpful to put together a very brief primer on some of the main things to watch out for along with a list of resources for learning more.
A few basic things to know:
+ Lead was used in oil-based paints until it was banned for residential use in 1978. If you live in any home built prior to 1978, unless it’s been properly remediated, it’s safe to assume there is lead lurking in the paint.
+ The danger from lead mostly comes when lead-based paint is disturbed. Some of the ways that disturbance can happen are obvious: ripping out woodwork, sanding old furniture or trim, or knocking a hole in the ceiling or walls. Other ways you can become exposed to lead paint are somewhat more subtle: a painted door that sticks and creates paint dust each time it’s opened or closed; painted windows and accompanying accumulation of paint chips in their sills, painted drawers or cabinets that create dust from the friction of being opened and closed, and general wear and tear.
+ If you’re a tenant, you have the right to be protected from lead paint. It’s worth looking up your local laws on this front, but in New York City, for instance, the Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention Act requires landlords to identify and remediate lead-based paint hazards in apartments of young children, using trained workers and safe work practices. When I became concerned about chipping paint in our apartment earlier this year, I filled out the form we’ve received at the beginning of every year, indicating that we had children under the age of six living in our apartment. (This is something I could have—and surely should have—done as soon as Faye was born.) As a result of filling out the form, our landlords were required to have the apartment tested for lead by an accredited firm. When those tests came back positive, they were required to hire another firm to fix the problem and to retest for lead dust once the work was done.
+ When a lead test comes back positive, there are a number of routes you can take to reduce the risks of exposure. These range from a full lead-paint removal, like my dad did in my childhood home, to encapsulation, which is essentially covering lead paint with a special primer to prevent exposure. Encapsulation is the cheapest method. It’s very effective but it’s important to remember that disturbing areas where encapsulation has been put in place will mean lead exposure. This is why it’s important not to take on demolition work while young kids are living in an apartment. (For clarification, this is also why we decided to take advantage of replacing our bathroom mirror while we were living downstairs and while lead work was underway upstairs. That way, we knew that any possible lead paint that was disturbed in the process would also by properly cleaned up.)
+ How to know if you have lead?
You can buy home lead test kits and test yourself or You can hire a company to use a special machine to test your woodwork for lead or send a chip in for lab testing yourself. UPDATE: A quick note to clarify that we had our home professionally tested for lead. Whether someone comes to your home to test or you send a paint chip into the lab for testing, the safest route to go is with professional lab tests.
+ If you and your landlord is contracting out the work, make sure that you’re working with lead-safe certified contractors. These folks are required to renew their certifications and practice safe removal, remediation, and retesting to make sure everything’s been properly cleaned up.
Beyond lead paint:
+ Lead contamination of water has been distressingly in the news because of the widespread contamination in Flint, Michigan, but it’s wise not to think of this as a problem only in someone else’s backyard. Get your water tested for lead. If you live in New York City, you can hire a lead test kit for free. When we first moved into this building we wrote away for the test, filled up the provided bottles with tap water and sent them back off to the lab to be tested. It’s a simple step to take to feel better (or discover you’ve got a problem that needs fixing).
+ Lead contamination of soil is another pretty significant concern, especially for parents of small kids who might especially enjoy digging in the dirt. If you have young children or you’re hoping to plant a vegetable garden, it’s a good idea to get your soil tested for lead contamination (especially in garden beds that might be directly next to a house.) Here are a few soil testing resources to look into.
+ While less common than lead paint, if you’re embarking on any kind of renovation project or living in an older home, asbestos is another dangerous material that you might want to keep an eye out for, especially if you’re dealing with old floor tiles or insulation. Here’s some more information on that this way.
+ I’m not a lead authority, but there are plenty of people who are. Here are a few good resources for learning more and making decisions about how to stay safe.