By Julie Wilson
An accessible and lucrative resource, lead was one of the first heavy metals to be used by humans. In 2012, lead production in the United States reached an estimated 1.6 million metric tons, making it a valuable resource for a variety of products, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. The metal, which occurs naturally within the earth’s crust, was used as an additive for paint production that increased dry time, an octane-booster for gasoline and lead-acid storage batteries for cars.
Following concerns over its toxicity, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission banned lead-containing paint, toys and furniture in 1977 in order to reduce children’s risk of lead poisoning through ingestion of paint chips or peelings. Despite the ban, many buildings including schools and day care centers were already coated in lead-based paint. Facilities failing to maintain, renovate or improperly remove lead-based paint that was installed before the ban pose an even greater risk for exposure.
At least 4 million households with children are exposed to high levels of lead, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). And half a million children between the ages of one and five have blood lead levels above 5 micrograms per deciliter, the threshold for which the CDC says medical attention is required.
Young children are particularly at risk for lead exposure; because of this, schools and day cares are areas of high concern for heavy metal-contamination.
Once a victim of lead poisoning, Tamara Rubin launched the Lead Safe America Foundation (LSAF), an organization dedicated to helping parents detect and diagnose lead contamination in children.
LSAF participates in education and outreach regarding the dangers of lead exposure in young children. Rubin’s latest project involves visiting schools and day cares across the nation, testing for lead using an X-ray fluorescence heavy-metal detector, according to a report by The Huffington Post.
While visiting seven in-home preschools around Portland, Rubin discovered lead-contaminated cups, toys and other items; three of the schools contained hazardous lead-based paint.
Even Angela Murphy’s in-home day care, which uses all-natural cleansers and serves organic food, tested positive for lead, and in some surprising places. The red heart-shaped doormat welcoming her clients ended up being a cesspool for lead, likely due to children picking up old lead paint chips and dust on their shoes and tracking it inside.
Murphy’s home was constructed in 1912, long before the ban on lead-based paint. Buildings of this age are not uncommon. In the U.S., the average main school building is more than 40 years old, according to HuffPo.
Deteriorating paint chips eventually turn into lead-based dust that becomes airborne, saturating nearby soil and water, and crumbling infrastructure can leach lead into schools’ drinking water.
“I’ve been to 50 cities in the last year. Hazards in schools are pretty universal,” said Rubin, but newly built schools are sometimes an exception, she noted.
Lead is deadly, yet difficult to detect
Today, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) only offers a voluntary guide for how to safely repair or renovate using lead-safe practices, but a federal law requiring schools and children’s facilities to be tested for lead or be lead-free, is non-existent.
Young children are particularly susceptible to lead poisoning not only because their developing bodies are sensitive, but because kids spend a lot of time on the floor and put their hands in their mouths, explained Howard Mielke, an expert in lead poisoning at the Tulane University School of Medicine.
Very minute amounts of lead dust can damage brain development, resulting in lower IQs and cognitive difficulties.
Regarding lead in day care centers and schools, Mielke said, “I can’t think of a worse combination.”