Toxic Free NC Tip of the Week: Lead (as in the heavy metal)

Lead Not So Better

May, 15, 2009, by Billie Karel

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I heartily recommend the Bain Project installation to anyone who hasn’t been out to see it yet, but - and I say this out of love - the place is full of peeling dusty corroded lead-based paint, and you should think long and hard before bringing your kids. While we’re on the subject, there are lots of misconceptions about lead poisoning - how it happens, where it happens, and even that it still happens at all. It does!! If you have kids or would like to someday, you need this information. I know I’m a giant Debbie Downer, but it’s important!

My friend Amy came with me to Bain Waterworks last weekend. At first, we were chuckling about all the lead paint in the place, since she works for the state lead program and knows the issue backwards and forwards. “Oh, let’s be sure not to lick the walls, hardy har har.” But then we saw something that freaked us out, and chuckles ceased. Here’s how Amy tells it:

I saw some kids running around, pulling themselves up to windows to look around. Then I saw a toddler marveling at the wide-open aisle between the water tanks and take off running out of his mom’s grasp only to trip and fall, hands first, onto the tile. And then my stomach started to hurt.

Her stomach started to hurt because she’s so familiar with all the research on lead and children’s health, and she knows all too well how dangerous that could have been. There’s a common misconception that kids have to eat lead paint chips to get lead poisoning, and another one that it’s only a problem in substandard housing - in other words, only for poor people. Most people don’t realize that the primary source of lead exposure for children is actually the lead dust that winds up in kids mouths after crawling (or falling!) on contaminated floors or touching contaminated window sills. Little kids are prone to put all kinds of stuff in their mouths - including their dusty hands - so it’s hard to keep what’s ON them from winding up IN them.

People also aren’t taking all the precautions they should when renovating old houses. Again, Amy writes:

As people return to urban areas and reclaim all of the handsome buildings that were abandoned for suburban dreams, I want them to know that that lead paint has been sitting around for decades. While it might have once posed little risk, it has been chalking and flaking over time, just waiting for the day that it would get “flipped” and earn a generous profit for the owner. Well-meaning parents trying to live a more sustainable lifestyle closer to all the cool stuff in town call me shocked and guilt-ridden that they’ve just poisoned their child from dry-sanding some doors. Because they “didn’t know lead poisoning was still a problem.”

It doesn’t take much lead to cause damage - 10 micrograms per deciliter of blood, which is like one millionth of a sugar packet - and once kids get too much lead in their bodies….yikes. The symptoms of lead poisoning are things like stomachache, irritability, and tiredness - things that are easy to mistake for another illness. The only way to know for sure if a child has been exposed to lead is through a blood test. Research shows that brain damage from lead makes it harder for kids to learn, behave well, and grow. There are documented links between lead poisoning as a child and criminal behavior in adolescence. In adults, lead exposure from childhood builds up in their bones. For women, this lead re-circulates during pregnancy (it can pass the placental barrier and also into breast milk) and menopause. In men, it makes sperm swim slower and can affect their fertility. People who were lead poisoned as children have even been shown to have more trouble with brain function as senior citizens.

So, long story short, we talked with the Bain people about all this, and they were really cool about it, and there will be EPA brochures about preventing lead poisoning available at the Bain Waterworks this weekend for anyone who’s concerned. So, look for those. But honestly, if I had a kid, I wouldn’t bring her or him to Bain, and I’d be really careful about washing up when I got home so as not to expose my kid to lead dust on my clothes, shoes, or skin. If you’re looking for more information about precautions you can take to prevent lead poisoning, check these out:

From UNC School of Public Health: Facts About Lead Poisoning
From the US EPA: Renovate Right, and Protect your family from lead in your home

And, heaven forbid, but just in case: The NC Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention Hotline: 1-888-774-0071.

Thanks to Amy for all the information for this week’s tip!

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Politics, Other posts by Billie Karel.


EnvironmentInside the BeltlineToxic-FreeBain Projectlead poisoningkidsbain


  • Dr. Sandra Cottingham
    05/16 04:42 AM

    Your article really brought the lead issue into a useful and realistic focus for readers. Thank you. Most people have no idea that the amount of lead it takes to permanently damage the brain of an unborn child is equivalent to 3 granules of sugar. That puts things into perspective, and highlights why no amount of lead exposure is OK.
    Incidentally, digital x-rays will show past accumulations of lead stored in the leg or arm bones. Blood tests are only a snap shot of present exposure - useful information, but past accumulations are passed on from mother to unborn child.  You can see a couple of great examples of x-rays images showing these “lead lines” in my book, Lead Babies. Like your article, it really ties science to real life, and then empowers readers to take the simple steps needed to eliminate or avoid lead in the home and at work. For anyone planning children in the next year or so, its a MUST read.

    Breaking the cycle of learning disabilities, declining IQ, ADHD, behavior problems, and autism

    Authors: Joanna Cerazy M.Ed. and Sandra Cottingham Ph.D
    Publisher: Kunati Inc (USA & Canada) 1-866-356-2442
    Distribution: Independent Publishers Group (IPG)
    ISBN: 978-1-60164-192-2

  • junkyschristmas
    05/21 01:32 PM

    Very good and informative article. Thanks, Billie and Amy!

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