When Did We Find Out Lead Paint Was Dangerous?

Photos of hungry children eating lead paint chips or clay in run-down houses in the 1960s and 70s still sear my memory.

This is a condition known as pica, eating things that aren’t food.

Although sometimes a mental disorder, it is also associated with poverty and sometimes represents a mineral deficiency, such as for iron.

A child with this condition who eats paint chips from an old house is at risk of lead poisoning.


English: New Orleans, LA, 12-03-05 -- Jackie G...

FEMA Surveys Peeling Lead Paint in a House After Katrina. New Orleans, LA Photo Credit: Wikipedia


We now know that damage from lead paint is worse for children under six, stunting their growth and causing delayed development.

It can also cause reproductive damage to adults.

As it happens, lead paint is sweet, so the taste does not discourage children from putting lead-based painted toys in their mouths.

More importantly, the dust from lead paint is as dangerous as eating the chips.

The inquiry into the dangers of lead paint started when researchers discovered that babies who chewed on cribs and window sills and porch rails painted with lead paint were at risk for learning disabilities, colic, irritability, convulsions, developmental delays and death.

The first to make the connection between lead paint and poisoning from chewing on painted surfaces was an Australian physician, Dr. Lockhart Gibson, in 1904, who blamed both freshly painted surfaces and dust from old, powdery surfaces that children got on their hands and then in their mouths.

By 1917, a Johns Hopkins doctor recommended that in any case where there was no known cause for convulsions, lead poisoning should be suspected.

Hospitals reported lead poisoning in children who chewed on painted furniture, including cribs, and woodwork, in the 1920s and 30s.

Most crib and toy manufacturers responded to the reports by 1930 and stopped using lead paint.

The Baltimore Health Department, however, reported 135 cases of lead poisoning, including 49 deaths, between 1931 and 1940.

By 1940, many household and interior paints were reformulated to eliminate lead.

A 1986 survey of homes showed:

  • One-third of those homes built between 1940 and 1959 had high levels of lead paint, compared to 62% of homes built before 1940.
  • Twenty-eight percent of houses built between 1951-59 had high levels of lead paint.
  • 8.7 percent of houses built between 1960 and 1972 had high levels of lead paint.

In 1971, eight of 76 interior house paints being sold in New York City had high levels of lead.

Legislation limiting the amount of lead in paint was passed in 1970.

The amount of lead allowed in paint was reduced from .5 percent to .06 percent in 1978.

Is There Still a Problem?

The ban extends to toys and furniture painted with lead paint.

Homes built before 1977 may still contain lead paint.

The National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey of children conducted between 1976 and 1980 revealed that 700,000 children under the age of six had elevated lead levels.

Just as with asbestos, disturbing lead paint can cause lead poisoning from the dust.

When an older home is renovated and lead paint removed, care must be taken to minimize and capture the dust so it doesn’t seep into the house.

In 2003, for instance, when lead paint was burned off the outside of a house during renovation, the resulting dust so contaminated the house it had to be abandoned.

This was only learned when the occupant’s two children showed evidence of lead poisoning a few weeks after the renovation.

In 2007, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimated there were 24 million housing units with lead paint.

They estimated that 300,000 children had elevated levels of lead, most from home renovations.

In 2010, when the EPA issued the lead paint Renovation, Repair and Painting rule, there were an estimated 38 million houses that had lead paint.

The EPA now requires renovators, carpenters, even landlords, if they disturb more than 20 square feet of a lead-painted surface area, to use a certified professional, trained to follow EPA guidelines, to treat it.

The EPA estimated that between 2000 and 2010, thirty years after lead paint was banned from homes, one million children were affected by lead poisoning.

China bumped up against this ban in June of 2007 when they had to recall 1.5 million Thomas and Friends train sets sold in the U.S. because they were painted with lead paint.

By September, 2007, China had banned lead paint in toys exported to the U.S.

What Can You Do?

Sanding and burning painted surfaces puts lead dust in the air.

Hire professionals trained and certified to remove lead paint safely.

Leave the home while they are working.

If a painted surface is in good condition, don’t disturb it.

If removing it, put barriers between the part of the house being remodeled and the rest of the house.

Wipe the dust off your feet on a doormat before entering the rest of the house.

Remove and wash the clothes worn during remodeling, or hobbies that use lead, like making stained glass.

Make sure children wash their hands before meals and before they sleep so they won’t ingest lead dust.

Have your drinking water tested. If you have lead pipes, they can leach lead into the water.

Make sure children get enough iron and calcium in foods like eggs, meat, beans and dairy.

Iron and calcium reduce the body’s ability to absorb lead.

Have you ever known someone affected by lead poisoning?

Did you know what the common sense steps are you can take when renovating a house older than 1977?

Did you know that washing your hands makes a difference in exposure to lead paint?

To you and the continued safety of your grandchildren.


Carol Covin, Granny-Guru, Grandma to two awesome grandchildren

Author, “Who Gets to Name Grandma? The Wisdom of Mothers and Grandmothers”



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