What is it?
Lead is a naturally occurring heavy metal found in the earth's crust. Its high density, low melting point, malleability and low cost have made it the metal of choice for numerous applications, from bullets to batteries. But it's also highly toxic, and its widespread use means it's commonly found in the environment and our homes.
Where can you find it?
Although the use of lead has been phased out of many applications since the late nineteenth century, when evidence of its toxic effects first came to light, exposure to lead is still a problem—and not just for people who work with the metal. If you live in an old house, you'll probably have lead in old layers of paint or varnish (bans on lead in paint came into force in 1978 in the US and 1992 in the UK), and your water pipes might be made of lead (meaning lead will likely be in your water supply too). Painted or varnished vintage furniture, glazed ceramics, cosmetics, soil and roofing materials can also contain lead. Household dust may contain lead from a number of different sources.
What can you do about it?
All homes can potentially contain lead, whether it's from indoor or outdoor sources. According to US research, 24 million American homes contain deteriorated lead-based paint and elevated levels of contaminated house dust.6 The good news is that there's plenty you can do to make your home lead-safe. See opposite for our top tips.
What's wrong with it?
No human organ is immune to lead toxicity, which means that it can cause a wide spectrum of health effects—from heart problems and hormone disruption to brain and nerve damage—even at low levels of exposure.1
Indeed, the World Health Organization states that there is no known level of lead exposure that is considered safe.2
Children are especially vulnerable to the effects of lead. They can easily inhale or ingest lead-containing dust or paint chips, or may put lead-coated objects in their mouths. And their growing bodies absorb more lead than adults. Lower IQ, behavioral problems, impaired hearing and reduced height have all been linked to low-level lead exposure in children.3
Pregnant women are also particularly at risk. Elevated levels of lead in the blood during pregnancy have been associated with high blood pressure, miscarriage, preterm delivery, low birth weight, and developmental disabilities in affected babies.4
Lead has also been linked to reduced rates of fertility.5
How to reduce your exposure to lead
Test for lead
You can check for lead in old paint, furniture and other items in your home with a lead testing kit such as those offered by 3M and Abotex, available online from Amazon and other sites. Alternatively, ask your local public health agency for advice on how to get your home tested professionally. If you live in a home built before the 1960s, it's safe to assume you have lead in your paintwork.
If you think you or a family member may have been exposed to worrying levels of lead, ask your doctor for a blood test. If it turns out the level is cause for concern, there are numerous ways to detox the body naturally, such as taking supplements like chlorella and spirulina. See WDDTY April 2017 and December 2018 for advice, or consult a qualified naturopath who can devise a personalized holistic detox program.
Keep paintwork in good condition
Lead that's sealed in beneath layers of modern, lead-free paint shouldn't be a problem, but if it's flaking or peeling it needs to be dealt with promptly as it can create harmful lead dust. Also consider whether the paint is likely to be knocked, scratched or damaged by children or pets, or if it's in a high-traffic area such as around windows, doors or stairs.
The simplest way to deal with lead paintwork, if it's in good condition, is to seal it in with an overcoating of modern, lead-free paint. But if it's in bad condition and needs to be removed, make sure you don't use methods that create dust or fumes, such as dry sanding or a heat gun. Try a solvent-free water-based paint stripper instead from a company like Lakeland Paints (www.lakelandpaints.co.uk). Or call in an experienced professional. If doing it yourself, always wear protective clothes, gloves and a face mask (suitable for lead particles), remember to dispose of the removed paint in a sealed container, and vacuum and clean the area thoroughly afterwards.
Be careful of cosmetics
Lead has been found to contaminate certain cosmetics including lipsticks and eyeliner, so stick to reputable natural brands that are transparent about their ingredients and committed to strict standards regarding heavy metals and other contaminants. If in doubt, contact the company and ask them.
Check your pipes
Lead is dull gray, usually thicker than plastic or copper pipes and produces a 'thud' sound when tapped with a metal object (rather than a clear ringing tone). A local plumber can confirm if your pipes are made of lead. If they are, consider having them replaced, or get a water filter that removes lead, such as ZeroWater filter jugs. Some water companies offer lead pipe replacement programs for the portion of the supply pipes they are responsible for leading to your house. Contact your local water company for advice.
Inhaling lead-containing house dust is a key route of exposure to the heavy metal, so keep surfaces dust-free by vacuuming and wiping them often. Also, avoid wearing outdoor shoes in your home to prevent lead-containing dust or soil from being tracked in from outside.
For more information and advice about lead in the home and what you can do about it, check out the following websites and links:
•US Environmental Protection Agency: www.epa.gov/lead
•US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: www.cdc.gov/ nceh/lead/
•UK Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs: www.gov.uk/ government/publications/ advice-on-lead-paint-in-older- homes
•UK commercial lead testing: www.testforlead.co.uk