Lead Poisoning From Home or Garden

Photo by Joe Mabel, Wikipedia Commons

This is not the topic I had planned for the week, until I read Mother Jones' excellent article on "America's Real Criminal Element." (First in the Sources, below.) Like many people, I think I had on my internal radar only one source of lead poisoning--lead paint. I was also unaware of the extreme impacts lead can have on children. So to catch you up, let's summarize.

First, kids are hit much, much harder by lead poisoning than adults. If you're my age, even with a pretty hefty exposure to lead, you'll probably survive it. If you have yet to reach the ripe old age of 14, you are at much greater risk. The extreme impact is death. But to my way of thinking, some of the steps you get to before death are much worse.

Lead paint peels in a scale-like pattern.

Lead is a neurotoxin, meaning that it is poisonous to the development and integrity of the nervous system. If you consider all the bodily functions that are controlled by your nervous system, you get a clue about just how miserable lead can make your life. Kidney problems, anemia and hearing loss are all possibilities awaiting your child if exposed to lead. A high dose of lead will likely manifest first as abdominal pain. (Please see the Your Child link for more on this.) But the far-more-common-than-we-thought impact of lead poisoning has to do with brain and neuron development. This impact can come from small, accumulated doses of lead poisoning--especially in very young children.

Warning signs include irritability, hyperactivity or aggressiveness, low appetite/energy, headaches, weight loss, fatigue/weakness, constipation, difficulty sleeping or learning problems.

"Learning problems" is a really sweet way to say "your child may become criminally inclined because his/her brain can't process information normally" or "your child's IQ can drop drastically" because of exposure to lead. And it doesn't take a large quantity. Lead exposure is measured in micrograms per deciliter, and as small a measure as 10mg/dl [

which would be about 0.00000202884135354 of a teaspoon*

] will drop an IQ by 7 points. An estimated 2.5 million children nationwide have blood lead levels greater than 5mg/dl.

Fruits like canteloupe are less dangerous than leafy greens.

Here I'll recommend the Your Child link again for a comprehensive list of the many ways in which your child can be exposed to lead. The most common, however, appears to be the one covered in the Mother Jones article--leaded gasoline.

Since I tend to cover the interface between home and garden, let's now direct ourselves to the places inside and out your home that you have some control over. First is the lead paint issue. In homes/apartments built in the 1960's, trim work was the most likely thing to be painted with lead-based paints. (It's really tough stuff. Good at what it does. Like asbestos.) The riskiest part of your trim is windows, because of the raising and lowering of sashes. This movement rubs off as a fine dust, freeing up the lead to become airborne.

The first thing you can/should do if you suspect that there is lead paint in your home is to buy a test kit from your local home improvement store-- they can be had for as little as $10 and as much as $30. Results are instant. Once you know, your options are: to damp mop and wipe down with a damp rag frequently (and invest in a HEPA vacuum); to re-paint any trim with a fresh coat of good acrylic-based paint (encapsulating the threat); or to replace your windows and/or trim.

The second source you should concern yourself with is your copper pipes. Lead solder is common with these pipes. The first step here would be to install a NSF-approved filter at the tap. These start at about $20 and go up, depending on whether you purchase individual filters or a whole-house setup (starting about $200.). Do remember that any filter setup will require you to change the carbon cartridges at regular intervals (additional $$). If your pipes are getting a little older, you might consider replacing the supply lines with PEX, which uses compression fittings and thus no solder and has the additional benefit of being much more resistant to freezing, since the product is flexible.

Raised beds are a safe way to "grow your own" in risky areas.

The third (and last) source we will deal with here is soil. To test your soil for lead, enlist your Cooperative Extension Service. If it tests positive, you have a few options. It helps to know if you have an "old" problem or an "ongoing" problem, however. If live near or in the landing/take off path of an airport or military base, you are faced with an "ongoing" problem, as jet fuel still contains some lead, though much less than it used to (this is a generalization--read more at the Wikipedia link, below).

If you wish to plant vegetables and have either an old or an ongoing problem, you can still plant tomatoes and other garden vegetables that "fruit," as long as they are washed thoroughly before consumption with a 1% vinegar solution (see the link from Cornell University on "Best Practices," in the sources) as the lead will not move through the plant into the fruits. Washing will remove any airborne contamination. If you have an


contamination problem, you can 1) replace the topsoil, 2) plant leafy vegetables that will absorb the lead (and then throw them away--do not eat or compost!), or 3) plant in raised beds, using bagged soil mixtures.

For healthy practices if you do have lead contamination (again, check the link "Your Child," below), remember that cleanliness is next to godliness. Change your air filters monthly. Remove your shoes when you come in the house. In the garden, mulch your beds so there is less chance of airborne particles of lead making their way into your home. Eat a healthy diet, with plenty of calcium--and make sure your kids do, too--a healthy immune system will make any accidental exposure less deadly.


America's Real Criminal Element


Is There Lead In Your House


Children, Gardens and Lead


Soil Contaminants and Best Practices for Healthy Gardens


Understanding Your Test Results: Metals in Garden Soils and Vegetables,

Your Child: Lead Poisoning


Centers for Disease Control


Wikipedia, Aviation Fuel


Wikipedia, Soil Contamination


Wikipedia, Lead Poisoning

*approximation--if you need true precision, consult the links above.

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