Lead 101: 20 Things You Need to Know…

Until about 6 months ago, I had no idea at all that lead was an issue I needed to concern myself with. Can’t say ignorance was bliss, exactly – I have been an environmental activist for more than 20 years now, & know all too well of the existence of about a bazillion other extremely serious environmental issues. For sure though, lead was for some reason a serious one that had managed to entirely evade my personal radar screen.

Eek! Turns out that lead exposure, & lead poisoning of our children especially, remains a very stubborn & serious issue indeed. Many of us have believed that since lead was removed from gasoline, the issue was solved. Oops. Not so. Not by a long shot.

I’ve now attended 2 events at which my lead ignorance was thoroughly blown out of the water. The first was a conference in Hamilton, Ontario in June 2010. The second was a (U.S.) Centers for Disease Control-sponsored National Healthy Homes and Lead Poisoning Prevention Training Center held in Chicago in December 2010. I even have a nifty little certificate that states I “completed the course requirements for the Primary Prevention Track.” So I’m not just making all this up, OK? There were phenomenal presenters at this event: Ph.D’s abounding, along with several M.D.’s. This was not an “activist” crowd, btw – I was the only activist there; it was attended mostly by Health Dept. workers from all over the U.S.

This blog posting will serve as an introduction to the issue from the standpoint of someone who had no idea whatsoever a year ago that lead was an issue at all. I’ll post other items on this topic, & may even create a new heading at the top (“Getting the Lead Out” maybe??) if this seems like a useful idea.

First things first!! Here goes with a nursery school collection of what I believe we all need to know about lead. Information resources will be posted separately.

  • Lead exposure is a very serious issue. It is especially important to learn about it if you have children or are contemplating doing so, since you won’t want to pass your own lead body burden onto your child. (Lead crosses the placenta from mother to fetus.)
  • What you cannot see definitely can hurt you. It takes only a very, very, very small lead exposure to cause serious impacts in children. Nor do you (or your child) need to go around picking up & swallowing paint chips to cause problems. It’s in the dust…usually dust that is not even visible.
  • Housing (i.e., residential sources) is the number one source of exposure for American children today. From interior paint – which naturally deteriorates over time – leaving toxic dust residue; exterior paint – when it chips & flakes & falls to the ground, getting pulverized into dust & then tracked indoors & blown into children’s play areas (e.g. porches); and drinking water (from lead solder, lead plumbing, lead service connectors). Residential sources account for 70% of lead poisoning cases in American children today. Consumer products, ethnic remedies & other unknown sources account for the other 30%.
  • 50% of lead-contaminated people in the U.S. are children.
  • There have been cases of children having been so severely lead-exposed that they have died. Shocking? Yes. Extremely shocking. (The case I heard about while at the Chicago workshop involved a child who died in 2006 after swallowing a small charm that consisted of 99% lead. It had come as part of a promotion in Reebok shoes.)
  • There are houses that have lead-poisoned one set of children & then gone on to poison 16 more families’ children. (I wish I was making this up.)
  • Children may become exposed to lead in their homes if there is lead-based paint present, either in paint chips or lead dust, or due to renovations. Or, they may become exposed if one of their parents works in a job involving lead exposure (exposure may come via contact with lead-contaminated clothing). This is an excellent site summarizing possible sources of lead exposure http://www.health.state.ny.us/environmental/lead/sources.htm
  • 10’s of millions of houses are still coated with lead-based paint. 40% of all U.S. housing has some lead-based paint. More than 80% of U.S. homes built before 1978 contain lead paint. Marine paint still has lead in it.
  • In many cities, landlords seem extraordinarily resistant to doing the repairs necessary to clean up lead-contaminated buildings. It is also true that many municipal politicians are themselves landlords. Hmmmmmm. Are we able to connect the dots here??
  • Impacts of lead on human behaviour: delinquency, aggression, inattention, social problems, irritability, malaise, hyperactivity, seizures. The cognitive damage caused by lead exposure often leads to aggressive behaviour that takes many down the road to crime & incarceration.
  • Many lead-savvy folks (including medical doctors who speak out) say our children are being used as the modern-day “canaries in the coal mine.” I highly recommend this powerful 11- minute video called “The Child is the Canary.”
  • In the U.S., it is said that there are more than a million adults in 100 occupations who are exposed to lead (another post will have a partial list of these).
  • Common products one may encounter or use that may contain lead are chipping paint, plumbing lines that carry water into our home, eyeliner, jewellery, lipstick, a startling assortment of toys, & moonshine (not making this up!). More on possible sources below. Lead paint, however, is the primary source of lead poisoning.
  • Here in Canada (the country where I happen to live) the official federal government Health Canada position appears to be that, although lead is a serious issue in the U.S., here in Canada it is not. I am not saying I understand or agree with this position, I’m just telling you that’s the claim Health Canada makes. (I am highly skeptical about this, to put it very, very politely…)
  • In the U.S., lead began being phased out of gasoline in 1972 & was finally banned in 1990. It was banned in paint in 1978. Since many homes were built before 1978, exposure remains a serious problem. In Canada, lead was removed from gasoline in 1990, but we did not follow the U.S example & completely ban it from interior paint until 2005. Lead can still be added to exterior paints manufactured & sold in Canada if it contains the warning: “DANGER: CONTAINS LEAD. DO NOT APPLY TO SURFACES ACCESSIBLE TO CHILDREN OR PREGNANT WOMEN.” (Yikes…)
  • Countries such as Mexico took much longer about legislating lead out of gasoline; in fact, I’m not clear that they have yet done so. In any case, I’ve been told that much of that country is seriously lead-contaminated. Food grown in lead-contaminated soil is…wait for it…lead-contaminated!
  • As reported by a staff person from the New York City Bureau of Environmental Disease Prevention (NYC Dept. of Health & Mental Hygiene), the most frequently reported countries of birth of those who have been diagnosed in New York City as lead-exposed are Bangladesh, Pakistan & Haiti. This doctor reported on work her department did when sources such as Mexican candy, some Ayurvedic medicines from India, some make-up (kohl, kajal & surma), spices (e.g. turmeric), & jewellery (an earring stud which claimed to be “lead-free” & which had 32,000 ppm (parts per million) lead in it) were discovered. Other sources: a West African remedy, an amulet, & ceramics. For more info, go here (same NY site as above).
  • In 2004 the federal U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission recalled more than 150 million pieces of metal toy jewellery sold through vending machines & other outlets.
  • History has long told us that the Roman Empire fell because of widespread lead contamination. Science tells us our bodies contain more than 100 times more lead than our ancient ancestors did. Industry tells us to keep quiet (& keep consuming). Health Canada tells us there is “no problem.”
  • Lead has no health benefits.

I can imagine a person having the impression that knowledge of the dangers of lead is new, but a person would be wrong about that. Quite wrong. Lead’s dangers have been understood for thousands of years. This makes the long & ongoing collusion between the lead industry & our governments all the more shocking & immoral…wouldn’t you say?

I say, ignorance is not bliss (I guess it never has been!)

Au contraire: Ignorance is dangerous. It is hazardous to your health, & that of your children & your potential children & potential grandchildren. It is hazardous to every living thing on Earth, since surely in these troubled, troubled times, we need our wits about us more than ever before!!!!


p.s. Subsequent postings will provide additional information about lead, including more interesting facts & a number of resources for you to consult. I don’t mean to freak you out about this issue, although admittedly I am feeling a wee bit freaked out myself! We always say knowledge is power, don’t we?? So my advice is, get knowledgeable about this!!

p.p.s. on Feb. 2nd: You can now find all my lead-related posts listed here

'Quote of the day' with this post: "The new thinking is that no safe threshold exists for lead exposure in children or fetuses.” ~ (Dr.) Sandra Steingraber, in Having Faith - An Ecologist's Journey to Motherhood.