Dear Doctor: We live in a charming older home, but some of the paint looks old. How worried should I be that it might contain lead?
Dear Reader: You're right to be concerned about the possible presence of lead-based paint in your home. Even in small quantities, lead is toxic to humans and animals. Children under the age of 6 and pregnant women are particularly susceptible to the ill effects of lead.
Children who have ingested lead may suffer from hyperactivity, lowered IQ, anemia, impaired growth and hearing problems. In pregnant women, the presence of lead can slow the growth of the fetus, cause nerve or brain damage to the unborn child, and even lead to premature birth.
Long-term exposure to lead can cause serious physical and neurological problems in adults as well. High levels of the toxic metal are associated with damage to the kidneys, brain, bone marrow and blood, as well as fertility problems and nerve disorders.
If your home was built before 1978, the Environmental Protection Agency warns that yes, there's a strong chance it contains lead-based paint. Homes built after 1978, the year a federal ban on lead-based paints went into effect, are considered to be safe.
The probability of finding lead-based paint in your home increases along with its age. Homes built between 1960 and 1977 have a 24 percent chance of containing lead-based paint. That number spikes to 69 percent for homes built between 1940 and 1959. Homes that predate 1940 have a whopping 87 percent probability of containing lead-based paint.
So are you and your family at risk? Fortunately, even if you've found lead-based paint in your home, there's good news.
When it's intact and in good condition, lead-based paint is usually not harmful, according to the EPA. To remain safe, you should regularly check your home for deteriorating paint and immediately address any issues. You can go a step further and, by covering lead-based paint with new paint, drywall or wallpaper, you will stabilize it and protect it from damage.
Problems arise because as it ages, lead-based paint chips, cracks, peels and crumbles. The resulting particles mix easily with household dust and get distributed throughout the house.
Since kids tend to explore the world with their mouths, the chance that they'll ingest lead from older paint that is deteriorating is high. Sweeping, vacuuming or even a breeze from an open window can make lead-filled dust go airborne where your family and pets can inhale and absorb it.
To know whether or not the paint you are worried about contains lead, you can purchase a test kit at a hardware store or hire a certified inspector. If you plan to remove the paint or to do major renovations, it's important to use a certified contractor who will know proper abatement procedures.
Federal guidelines recommend that children who live in or regularly visit a home with lead-based paint be tested for lead levels in their blood. For children, this test is performed at 12 months of age. The health effects of lead are not reversible, so vigilance is your best protection.
(Eve Glazier, M.D., MBA, is an internist and assistant professor of medicine at UCLA Health. Elizabeth Ko, M.D., is an internist and primary care physician at UCLA Health.)
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