How to Test for Lead

A lead hazard sign.

More than 200,000 children in the United States contract lead poisoning every year. Lead poisoning limits a child's ability to learn, even after a short-term exposure. It is estimated that over time a child's IQ drops 3 points for every 10 micrograms per deciliter of lead in their blood. If the child receives prompt medical attention, chances for recovery are very good. However, if the exposure goes undetected, it can bring about permanent damage, causing anything from learning disabilities to severe cognitive issues and even death. Children under the age of seven are much more susceptible to lead poisoning because their developing bodies absorb the lead at four times the rate of an adult.

Compounding this medical danger is the fact that one of the most common places for children to become exposed to lead is in the home. The major sources of in-home contamination are lead-based paints, tap water, decorated ceramic dishes, older cast iron bathtubs and sinks, soil, and airborne lead particles. Because you can't see, taste, or smell lead, it's hard to know when it is present in your home.

Have Your Child Tested

Health officials recommend that children receive a blood test for lead contamination by the age of one and continue testing every couple of years. However, if you suspect that your home may be contaminated with lead, have the child tested at six months old. It is estimated that as many as 1 in 4 children under the age of seven have lead in their blood. Contact your local health department for the location of medical attention and testing facilities.

Water Contamination from Lead

Lead contamination from tap water occurs because of the presence of lead-containing materials in the plumbing system. Lead-contaminated tap water may pose a serious health threat. According to the EPA, approximately 20 percent of public water systems, serving 32 million people, were found to have lead levels exceeding the EPA's safety standard of 15 ppb (parts per billion).

Risk Indicators

According to the EPA, the ultimate responsibility for safe drinking water rests with the end user. The water you drink may contain lead, which can cause adverse health effects, even at short-term exposure. Young children and pregnant women are at the greatest risk. Your home is at high risk of lead-contaminated water if it has: lead pipes or lead connectors from the water main, copper pipes with lead solder, soft water, or water remaining in pipes that contact lead for several hours (the longer water has been sitting in your home's pipes, the more lead it may contain).

The age of your home is a major contributing factor. Older homes with plumbing installed prior to 1930, are likely to have lead pipes. In addition, plumbing with copper pipes installed before 1988, may contain lead solder. Today, lead pipes and materials are prohibited from being used in plumbing that leads to drinking water taps.

Protection From Water Contamination

There are several ways to protect your family from lead-contaminated tap water. Make sure to flush your pipes before you use them. Prior to using water for cooking or drinking, run the tap water until it becomes as cold as it will get. Save the flushing water for cleaning, watering plants, and washing dishes.

Use only cold water for drinking and cooking. Hot water is likely to contain higher levels of lead. Inspect your plumbing system to detect lead. Lead pipes and solder are dull gray. When they are scratched they will look shiny.

Test your water with a lead detection product that utilizes EPA recognized laboratories. If your lead test comes back positive, the best way to handle the problem is to find the source and replace it.

Lead Paint Contamination

Many homes and apartments built before 1960 have heavily leaded paint. Homes and apartments built prior to 1978 may also contain paint with dangerously high levels of lead. Lead-based paint can be on walls, ceilings, woodwork, windows, furniture, children's toys, and even floors. As it peels, paint chips are loosened and can be ingested by children. Another contamination source from lead is lead dust particles. Painted surface friction points, such as window frames and sills, create paint dust. Household renovations also create high levels of paint dust. When a lead-based paint surface is broken, sanded or scraped, it breaks into tiny, sometimes invisible, pieces that children can swallow or inhale. Ceramic dishes and mugs are another area of concern. Some ceramic dishware, especially older items and those imported from foreign countries, may contain a lead-contaminated glaze. The lead can leach into food or liquids, particularly acidic foods such as tomatoes and citrus. Foods stored or cooked in these containers are at higher risk of contamination.

Reduce the Risk of Contamination

The initial step in preventing lead poisoning is determining whether or not your house and household items contain lead. All suspected surfaces and dishware should be tested. Home test kits provide a simple, accurate, and easy first line of defense against lead contamination. All surfaces including walls, windows, ceilings, floors, and ceramics should be tested.

Good housecleaning is also really important. Keep all of your children's play areas as dust-free as possible. Frequently wash floors and windows with phosphate-rich cleansers, such as automatic dish washing detergents. Keep all toys clean by washing them often. If you discover the presence of lead-based paint in your house, do not attempt to remove it yourself. Contact your local health department and seek help from a professional who has special training in lead paint removal or encapsulation.