Lead (Pb)

What is Lead?

Lead is a naturally occurring element in soil and is also collected from the air and other sources.

Where could you find it?

Water

Since lead is naturally occurring, it’s common to find some lead in our drinking water. However, lead pipes were used in many homes up to the 1950s as the water service main from the street; lead was also a part of the solder for copper pipes until the 1980s. Lead is no longer used in modern construction.

Initially, there may have been high concentrations of lead in supply piping containing lead solder/pipes, but over the years a build-up of lead oxide (rust) on the inside of the pipe reduces contamination. As a precaution, residents can run the plumbing fixtures for two to three minutes before drinking the water in order t clear out water that was in contact with the pipes for a long time.

In Canada, the action level is 10 parts per billion. In older homes that may have lead pipes, flushing the pipes may be a good idea if the water had been at rest for more than 5-8 hours.

Hot water should not be used for drinking or cooking, because hot water leaches lead from pipes/solder.

Paint

For the typical homeowner, the highest risk of exposure to lead used to be “paint”. Lead was used extensively for pigmentation and drying agent in oil-based paints until the early 1950s. Lead was generally not added to latex paints, except for a very small percentage. After the 1950s, manufacturers stopped using lead as pigment but still used it as a drying agent. Exterior paint had the most.

It wasn’t until the mid-1970s that the Canadian government set a limit of 5,000 parts per million of lead for interior paints. No limit was set on exterior paints.

What happens when I’m exposed to lead?

The biggest concern is the children. Children tend to touch things, and the put their hands in their mouth. Children also absorb lead more easily than adults because their metabolism is much faster. Children are vulnerable up to the age of 6, but lead affects the nervous system by slowing down development. The effects may be irreversible and include hearing impairment, behavioural problems and reduced intelligence.

Signs of lead poisoning are hard to distinguish from normal child-like complaints, sometimes, children will show no symptoms at all. Symptoms can be flu-like: stomach cramps, irritability, loss of appetite and general fatigue. As you can see, these symptoms are very general and it’s best not to rely on them as an indicator for lead.

How do I detect it?

If your home was built before 1980, there is a possibility that some lead paint on the interior or exterior of the home exists. If the home was built before 1950, it is almost a certainty.

To verify if there is lead-based paint in your home, there are inexpensive testing kits available, however, they are not always accurate. To get a better result, laboratory testing can be done.

How do I get rid of it?

Generally, all the ways to remove lead paint can be dangerous. Some techniques used for stripping lead paint include heat stripping, sanding, scraping and the use of chemicals. When you remove lead paint, there is a risk of creating lead dust. The finer the dust is, the more easily it’s absorbed into a person’s body.

I wouldn’t recommend a homeowner to remove lead paint themselves, instead hire a contractor that will insure the following:

  • You and your family’s health are protected from contamination
  • You and your family’s belongings are protected from contamination
  • The contractor should also do a thorough clean-up following the work

Other solutions include what’s called encapsulation. If the interior plaster/drywall is damaged, covering the lead paint can be considered. What happens here, the original surfaces are covered with drywall, heavy wallpaper (such as vinyl) or paneling. There are liquid epoxies that can be painted over lead paint; some contain a bitter tasting additive to discourage children putting their months on the surface.

If the wall surfaces are still in good condition, you can repaint them with a lead; some modern paints may not adhere well to old lead-based paints without wall preparation.