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Healthy Homes, Healthy Kids: Protecting Your Children From Everyday Environmental Hazards

Healthy Homes, Healthy Kids: Protecting Your Children From Everyday Environmental Hazards

by Charity Vitale

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This comprehensive and authoritative handbook, written by scientists, identifies many hazards that parents tend to overlook. It translates technical, scientific information into an accessible how-to guide to help parents protect children from even the most toxic substances.


This comprehensive and authoritative handbook, written by scientists, identifies many hazards that parents tend to overlook. It translates technical, scientific information into an accessible how-to guide to help parents protect children from even the most toxic substances.

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Island Press
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Healthy Homes, Healthy Kids

Protecting Your Children From Everyday Environmental Hazards

By Joyce M. Schoemaker, Charity Y. Vitale, Christopher Müller


Copyright © 1991 Joyce M. Schoemaker and Charity Y Vitale
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-61091-277-8


Limiting Lead Paint and Dust

The Problem. Paint containing lead, a toxic metal especially hazardous to the nervous system, was manufactured until the mid-1970s and is still present in homes of all types.

The Risk to Kids. Young children breathe in lead-contaminated household dust and eat lead paint chips as they crawl about. Lead damages the immature nervous system of children. Depending on the amount of exposure, it can cause a decreased IQ, learning disabilities, retardation, and death.

What to Do. Concerned parents can consult a physician about having their children tested for lead. Parents can keep the home free of lead dust and debris, get rid of old toys or furniture with deteriorating paint, remove lead paint from windows, seal or cover up lead paint on walls, and remove children from homes being renovated.

Toxic lead paint is a problem in 52 percent of American homes and in 70 percent of the houses in America's largest cities. In 1987 a Chicago child died from lead poisoning, causing outrage over the slow pace of the city's efforts to protect children from this hazard. Children who survive lead poisoning can suffer lifetime disabilities. This happened to five-year-old Desmond, who lives in Chicago and attends a special school for the handicapped. At the age of two, he had a blood test revealing a lead level four times the level considered toxic. His symptoms were weight loss, constant sickness, and an unsteady gait. After recovery, Desmond was left with permanent brain damage. Even very low levels of lead in a child's bloodstream can result in neurological damage that manifests itself in learning disabilities years later. Lead poisoning is considered the most prevalent environmental disease affecting American children. Unlike some health hazards, however, it can be eradicated.


Lead is a toxic metal that comes from harmless mineral ores. It is a versatile metal that has been in use since ancient times. The Egyptians used it in making figurines, the Romans in making roofs, pipes, and wine. In modern times lead has been added to gasoline, batteries, and paint. Lead keeps paint fresh, enhances its color, and helps it resist corrosion.

The problem with such paint is that, as time passes, it flakes and releases lead dust. With some lead paint the surface layer chalks off, becoming dust. Lead paint on windows deteriorates faster because of weathering and repeated opening and closing. Young children are likely to breathe in this dust and mouth the occasional paint chip on the floor.

Lead Poisoning

High doses of lead cause acute poisoning with wide-ranging symptoms. The U.S. Center for Disease Control (CDC) defines toxicity as a blood lead level equal to or greater than 25 micrograms of lead per deciliter blood. (A deciliter is one-tenth of a liter.) A child with this level may have a lower IQ and slowed nervous system reaction times. As blood levels climb, the symptoms grow more severe. For example, anemia and loss of nerve function in hands and feet occur at levels above 70 micrograms. Brain damage, with associated lethargy, irritability, clumsiness, tremor, coma, or even death, occurs at levels above 80 micrograms.

Low doses of lead have recently been discovered to act as a subtle but dangerous poison. Even children with levels below 25 micrograms can exhibit slowed growth and decreased IQ. Fetuses are vulnerable, since lead can pass to them through their mother's blood. Exposed fetuses show a younger age and weight at birth, and abnormalities in neurobehavioral development after birth.

There is evidence that neurological damage from low doses of lead may be permanent. The school performance of some children exposed in early childhood has been tracked by Dr. Herbert Needleman, a prominent researcher in lead poisoning. This group, tested in the first and fifth grades, and again at age nineteen, had a reading disability rate six times that of the general school-age population. The exposed children dropped out of high school at a rate seven times that of the general school-age population.

Why Are Children Vulnerable?

Children are more vulnerable to lead than adults. Children are more likely to eat and breathe lead. They spend a lot of time on the floor, where lead paint chips and dust accumulate. They like to mouth any and everything, as well as sink their teeth into painted windowsills, toys, and furniture.

Moreover, their bodies absorb more lead than do adults'—about 40 percent, as opposed to our 10 percent for adults—and they retain more of the lead they absorb. Some lead is stored in teeth and growing bones, where it can remain for decades until a stressful event like surgery triggers its release. Breastfed babies can drink lead that was previously stored in their mother's bones. Finally, because children breathe in more air than adults relative to body weight, they inhale more lead dust.

Once inside the body, lead is especially toxic to nervous tissue. This is dangerous for a young child, whose brain, spinal cord, and nerves continue developing after birth until two years of age. Brain damage during this time can be serious and permanent. A lead-poisoned child may be left with more than a lower IQ and hyperactivity; he or she may have trouble paying attention, following directions, and hearing.

Any child is at risk whose home contains paint manufactured before the federal lead paint bans enacted during the 1970s. Based on house age, some 60 to 80 percent of the units in New York, Boston, Philadelphia, and Chicago are contaminated. The U.S. Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry recently estimated that about 12 million children under the age of seven are exposed to lead paint. Some 8 to 11 percent of inner-city children have lead levels over 25 micrograms. And 17 percent of preschoolers in urban and suburban dwellings, regardless of family income, have blood lead levels above 15 micrograms.


Unfortunately, children are exposed to lead from many sources. The Consumer Products Safety Commission (CPSC) effectively banned lead in household paint in the 1970s; lead was reduced to 0.5 percent in 1973, and then to 0.06 percent in 1977. But some paints, such as those used by artists and those used outdoors (the yellow lines in roads), were exempted from the ban. You should keep professional-grade paints (see chapter 4, "Getting Rid of Toxic Art Materials") out of the hands of your children, and prevent them from chewing colored magazines or comics, which may contain lead.

Other major sources of exposure are vehicle emissions (from lead-gas combustion), soil contaminated by exterior lead paint or exhaust, food contaminated by lead cans and ceramic dinnerware, and drinking water that has been in contact with lead plumbing, including water from fountains and coolers. House carpeting can be a significant source of lead exposure to crawling and toddling youngsters. Carpeting—especially high-pile—can become a reservoir of toxic materials tracked indoors by shoes. Recent studies show that lead levels in carpets correlate with levels in the soil outside the house. Industrial lead emissions affect children living near factories. Some are exposed to lead dust brought home on the clothes of a parent employed in one of the lead-related industries, for example, lead smelters; brass foundries; battery, ceramics, or ammunition manufacturers; firing ranges; and plastics and stained-glass window producers. Airborne lead emissions may increase as landfills close and more trash is incinerated. There are also some less common sources of lead exposure: leaded-gasoline fumes, accidentally ingested shot from game birds, imported ethnic toys, home-distilled spirits, and the burning of lead-painted wood or battery casings.

A proposed Senate bill, the Lead Exposure Reduction Act of 1991, seeks to reduce lead in the environment. It would restrict the uses of certain lead-containing products and restrict the lead content in many more products, such as plastic additives, printing inks, pesticides, fertilizers, glazes, toys, fishing weights, stained glass, and wine bottle foil. It also calls for stricter labeling laws, manufacturing notices about new lead-containing products, and the recycling of lead-acid batteries. You can contact your government representatives if you support this bill.


You can do a lot to protect your children from lead paint. Some things are simple and inexpensive, others more difficult and costly. First, keep your house clean. Regularly remove dust and debris, and watch what your children put in their mouths. To reduce the level of lead particles in indoor carpeting—a problem in homes with contaminated yard soil—have family members remove their shoes at the door. Shoe removal can reduce lead build-up in carpeting by 90 percent. Use a vacuum cleaner with power carpet beaters, which can remove five times as much dirt and dust as suction-only models. Remove any older or antique toys and furniture that your children might teethe or that might be losing paint. Second, examine your home for naturally deteriorating lead paint, and run a test to confirm the presence of lead. Next, evaluate the three main lead abatement options: replacement, encapsulation, and removal. If possible, test for lead paint and do abatement work before moving into a home. Children and pregnant women should not remain in an older home undergoing lead abatement or renovation.

How to Test for Lead Paint

You can purchase home testing kits for lead paint (see Resources). One that tests all surfaces is Lead Check Swabs. You can run four tests for about $13, eight for $16, and sixteen for $30. The test takes less than a minute. You wet a swab with a chemical solution, rub the swab on the surface, and wait for a red color indicating the presence of lead to appear. Painted wood surfaces must be prepared before testing. The layers of paint are scraped or cut away from a small spot, and the test is run on this spot.

Critics of chemical spot tests say that they depend on subjective interpretations of color, and that the presence of other metals can alter the test. Another way to test is to use a professional laboratory. Call your local health department and request a test. If it cannot be performed, someone may be able to recommend a private testing laboratory. If you decide on a private lab, you will have to provide a paint chip sample, and the test will cost about $40. Another test is to have a skilled technician use a portable X-ray-fluorescence machine. To check the level of lead dust in your home, you can hire an abatement firm to perform a surfacewipe test.

Should You Replace, Seal Off, or Remove Lead Paint?

Once you have confirmed the presence of lead paint on your walls or woodwork, you must decide what to do about it. If it is deteriorating, you should remove the paint or create an effective barrier between it and your family. Now is the time to choose among abatement options, guidelines for which have recently been offered by the National Institute of Building Sciences.

These guidelines are replacement, encapsulation, and removal. Replacement is the most expensive but least hazardous method. It is useful for lead-painted windows, doors, and woodwork.

Encapsulation or sealing off is less expensive than replacement and generally safer to perform than removal. Some encapsulants are latex coatings that, when applied, are six times thicker than paint (see Resources). The best encapsulants are impermeable to lead dust and permanent. Walls can be covered with vinyl and wood paneling. Painted floors can be covered with tile, woodwork with vinyl or new wood. Outdoor paint can be encased with siding. Information on encapsulation and encasement materials is available from lead abatement and consulting firms and from nonprofit educational organizations like the Housing Resource Center (see Resources). Critics of encapsulation say that it only postpones the lead problem, and that removal is better.

Removal creates the greatest amount of lead dust and fumes. Certain paint removal procedures should never be followed: burning off with a torch or high-temperature heat gun, sanding with power tools, grit blasting, and stripping with the toxic solvent methylene chloride (a suspected human carcinogen). The following procedures are acceptable, provided workers protect themselves and their children from the dust and fumes: heat guns and heat plates that operate below 700° F, to soften paint before scraping; chemical strippers free of methylene chloride, to soften paint before scraping; and plain dry scraping (this is a controversial method that some find too dusty). In all cases, workers should have eye protection and wear a respirator with a dust and fume cartridge and a high-efficiency particle air (HEPA) filter. Workers using chemical strippers should have an organic vapors cartridge and set up fans for ventilation, making sure all open flames (stove and furnace pilots) are turned off.

Who Should Perform Removal Procedures?

The CPSC says only professionals trained in lead abatement should do work involving a significant amount of lead dust. These people are trained to protect workers on the job, contain dust, clean up, perform clearance tests, and dispose of hazardous lead waste. One experienced national abatement contractor and consulting firm is LeadTec Services, in Baltimore (see Resources). Call your local health department for an abatement contractor near you. Contracting the work is expensive—up to $400 for an 8-by-12-foot room. Lead abatement for a complete house can run from $3,000 to $8,000.


People renovating an old home or working on old furniture must protect themselves from lead dust and fumes. The CPSC recommends that workers isolate the work area, use respirators, and wear protective clothing. And they advise parents with children to get them out of the house.

One family with a Victorian farmhouse experienced this problem. Their children got lead poisoning when the house underwent major renovation. Workers sanded multiple layers of paint from floors and used torches, heat guns, and chemical stripper to remove paint from moldings on door frames. The family vacationed away from the house during much of the work and, upon their return, the parents tried to keep the children away from the work area. They hired a babysitter who kept the children occupied, mostly outdoors. Toward the end of the job the family dog, which had been regularly sitting near the workers and licking its dusty coat, became sick and was diagnosed with lead poisoning. A short time later, the mother grew weak and tired, and her five-year-old daughter began to complain of stomachaches and nausea. The girl's lead level was found to be 56 micrograms per deciliter of blood, well above the toxic threshold, and her twenty-month-old brother had a level of 87 micrograms. Both children required multiple courses of medical treatment. Elevated lead levels also were found in the parents, the babysitter, and the babysitter's two children, who had accompanied their mother on the job.

After renovation is completed, a work area isn't safe until all the dust has been carefully cleaned up. This requires vacuuming with a high-efficiency particle air machine, steam-cleaning carpets several times, and wet-mopping hard surfaces. You must also be careful in disposing of lead-contaminated debris. Call your city hall for advice on toxic substance disposal. You may be able to bring the debris, neatly wrapped and labeled, to a hazardous waste collection center in your area (see chapter 18, "Disposing of Hazardous Household Products").


Until very recently, it was legal to use mercury, another toxic metal, as a preservative in water-based latex paint. About one-third of all interior latex paint contained varying amounts of mercury. From an environmental standpoint, latex paint is preferable to oil-based paint with its toxic petroleum solvents. But mercury has turned out to be a serious threat. In 1989, during a hot July in Detroit, a family with a four-year-old son decided to paint the inside of their home. They used air-conditioning, keeping the windows closed, and the home was not very well ventilated. The job required 17 gallons of latex paint; unknown to the family, it contained mercury. At that time, manufacturers weren't legally bound to list mercury on their labels. A month after the job, the boy was diagnosed with acrodynia, a form of mercury poisoning. He had inhaled mercury fumes, which are heavier than indoor air and settle toward the floor.

The symptoms of acrodynia include rash, headache, high blood pressure, leg cramps, and muscle weakness. The Detroit boy's case was so bad he could not walk. Fortunately, after four months of hospitalization and repeated courses of therapy and rehabilitation, his legs regained their strength. Now, except for some abnormalities of the nervous and muscular systems, he is symptom-free.


Excerpted from Healthy Homes, Healthy Kids by Joyce M. Schoemaker, Charity Y. Vitale, Christopher Müller. Copyright © 1991 Joyce M. Schoemaker and Charity Y Vitale. Excerpted by permission of ISLAND PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Charity Vitale has a Ph.D. in biology from Georgetown University. She taught biology at St Joseph's College in Philadelphia. She has done biophysical research at the National Biomedical Research Foundation in Washington, D.C., and is the author of several scientific publications.

Joyce Schoemaker received a Ph.D. in microbiology from Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia. She has taught and done research in molecular biology at the University of Chicago and has held positions in research and management at several biotechnology companies. She is the author of numerous research publications.

Both authors have been actively involved with environmental issues in their communities.

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