How to avoid lead poisoning in your home

Advice from an activist mother of lead poisoned children for Lead Poisoning Awareness Week
By Tamara Rubin    Published on 10/22/2018 at 9:00 AM EDT
Markus Bürkle/Unsplash

Permanent. Brain. Damage.

Those are three words that no parent wants to hear about their child.

It’s sickening, heartbreaking, and it instantly upends your world. The new reality impacts every moment of your life, from waking and sleeping; it’s exhausting and all-consuming and can regularly send a parent (like me) into spirals of despair. You try to hide your upset from the kids, but you don’t always succeed.

My son Avi was lead poisoned in 2005, when he was just 7 months old. We hired a painting contractor to repaint the exterior of our historic Portland, Oregon, home. The contractor worked with a big crew, was licensed, and came highly recommended. He told us that he was trained and certified in lead safe work practices and that it was safe for us to stay in the home since he was only working on the exterior. We later learned that he lied. He wasn’t certified in lead-safe work practices, in fact he used the most dangerous paint removal methods possible: burning the paint off with an open flame torch. The fumes permeated our neighborhood and seeped into our home. My baby inhaled the leaded fumes and was instantly and acutely poisoned. He wasn’t crawling on a dusty floor. He wasn’t eating flaking paint chips. We thought we were doing the right thing.

Avi is now almost 14. Every day he struggles with challenges that no parent would ever wish for. His suffering ranges from physical pain and discomfort (including GI issues, plaque psoriasis, and sensory processing disorder) to mental anguish (caused by not being able to express himself in writing in an age-appropriate way, because his visual memory is in the fourth percentile, and his fine motor skills are also impacted, resulting in writing that is excruciatingly slow and difficult for him—and often nearly impossible to decipher).

We don’t hear about the collective impact of early childhood lead exposure on every generation alive today, and how lead has shifted the standards and expectations in our society. Health impairments that many attribute to “just old age”/“normal aging” are not in fact normal. Nearly every significant health impact your parents and grandparents are facing today has been studied and found to have links to lead exposure Increased risk of heart disease? Yes. Kidney failure? Arthritis? Yes. Yes. Memory impairments? Yes? Compromised immune systems? Yes.

Of course it’s likely also not “just” lead exposure — we’ve been impacted by a cocktail of toxic chemicals that have infiltrated our daily life over the past 100 years. However in Dr. Leonardo Trasande’s environmental impact report about the financial impact of all toxics on children today, he estimated that more than two-third of all costs for health impacts related to environmental toxicity exposure are caused by lead, with the other one-third being the impact of all other toxicants (e.g. BPA, Mercury, Plasticizers, etc.), combined. So even in this modern era, in this new century — lead plays a profound role in our everyday lives — one that cannot be ignored.

With the stakes so high, what can you do? How can you protect your family?

Start small.

In the years since my children were poisoned, I have learned that it can be very difficult for most parents to consider that their home may be poisoning their children. Faced with possible lead toxicity in their house, most people are not in a position to just start over and move to a safer home… but they can consider removing other possible sources of lead exposure—things like dishes, children’s toys, and furniture—as an easy place to start.

Tackle potential lead hazards in this order to make the process more manageable, especially if you cannot afford to do it all at once:

  1. Kitchen
  2. Child’s bedroom
  3. Playroom
  4. Other common areas in house
  5. Rest of home interior
  6. Windows
  7. Porches
  8. Home exterior
  9. Soil/ yard/ play area

The first step: your kitchen

First and foremost… make sure your kitchen is lead-free. Get rid of any potential source of lead that may directly impact your children’s body through your cooking and food preparation routines. This isn’t hard and doesn’t have to be expensive; you can take simple inexpensive baby steps to start…

Stop using your vintage dishes

Vintage dishes are almost all high lead! Replace them with safer choices, like new clear glass, plain white Corelle, or Ikea dishes. My philosophy is this: the “decoration” in our kitchens should come from our food not from our dishes. A new set of lead-free / cadmium-free dishes can cost as little as $43!

Try Corelle’s 32 Piece Dinnerware at Amazon, $65

Use cutting and food preparation boards

Don’t place or prepare your food directly on tile counters (which can be highly-leaded since tile is not regulated at all for total lead content). Instead set undecorated natural wood cutting boards on your tile counters for all of your food prep.

Try this extra large bamboo cutting board from Pier 1, $20

Don't forget about serving dishes and containers

Take a look at serving dishes and food canisters (Grandma’s old cookie jar?) as well as vintage food preparation and serving vessels (like your vintage Pyrex) with new eyes. Most highly decorated vintage items are VERY high lead (made at a time before these things were regulated at all, so the manufacturers often claim “we have always followed all regulatory requirements” — um, because there were none at the time!).

Try Artland Courtland Glass Serving Tray at Target, $23

Use glass, stainless steel, or cast iron

In general, switch to clear glass (new clear Pyrex is a good choice), undecorated (and uncoated) stainless steel (brands like Cuisinart are good choices), or undecorated plain cast iron (colorful coating on vintage and new cast iron vessels can be high in both lead and cadmium!) for cooking. Target and Walmart have a lot of good safe choices actually. Safe and toxicant-free does not have to be expensive, and – in fact – many of the more expensive pieces are more likely to test positive for lead and cadmium!

Try this cast iron dutch oven from Sur La Table, $100

No yellow brass

Avoid ALL yellow brass in cookware, whether for decorative or functional purposes. There is a new trend popularizing copper or cast iron cookware with brass accents. These brass accents are often very high lead and actually have readily available lead residue that transfers to your fingers when touched!

Stick with stainless steel and brushed nickel and avoiding things that say “brushed nickel finish” or “stainless steel finish.” Those could mean that there’s leaded brass underneath.

Try All-Clad’s Stainless Steel Multi-Cooker from Sur La Table, $130

Double check all baby items

Make sure you have lead-free  baby bottles and lead-free baby food storage containers! In the past two years I have found at least 6 brands of these types of products that were positive for unsafe levels of lead!

Try Dr. Brown’s bottles from Target, $11.50

Test your water

Get the water in your kitchen tested for lead. Water is rarely the most significant and sole source of poisoning for a child (it is more often a secondary source of exposure for children), but if the lead content is high, it can be. In the wake of Flint, many cities and counties are now offering FREE water testing, so check with your local health department. If free testing is not available you can purchase a water test kit for just about $40. When you do get your water tested, you want the level to be BELOW five parts per billion (ppb) for it to be considered safe.

Window replacement

If you live in an older home, and have funds for home improvement but have not yet considered window replacement, please consider starting with replacing the windows that have been painted in your kitchen (and then prioritize your child’s bedroom and playroom, in that order).

Experts have estimated that possibly as much as 90% of childhood lead exposure comes from the dust created from the paint disturbed on original older windows that have layers of old high-lead paint on them.

Try Pella Vinyl Replacement Double Hung Window at Lowe’s, $163

Once you have a lead-safe (or lead-free!) kitchen, next tackle your child’s bedroom, then their playroom, and then the rest of the house (baby steps).

From there, branch out — make sure Grandma’s house is lead-free, then your child’s daycare, and then start tackling other potential sources of lead in your community: playgrounds, community centers — any public resource housed in an older building.

2018 is the time.

Flint woke everyone up.

We can do better for our children and for future generations. #KnowBetterDoBetter

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