While much progress has been made in reducing the tragic and irreversible effects of lead poisoning in the U.S., the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention projects that there are more than 250,000 children--crossing all race, ethnic and socioeconomic boundaries--poisoned by lead annually. As a result of the reduction in known lead poisonings, some may think it is no longer a risk, or only a risk to children living in poor, urban neighborhoods. While these children are disproportionately affected because they often live in older, less well-maintained housing, they are by no means the only victims of this tragic disease.
The vast majority of children with lead poisoning are made ill through exposure to old, deteriorated lead-based paint and the toxic dust created by improper renovation or contaminated surfaces. Ingestion or inhalation of this lead dust is the primary means of exposure for children. Lead dust is stirred up every time lead paint is disturbed.
A very well-educated friend of mine, living in a beautiful 100-year-old home in a Midwestern college town, recently learned this lesson when he decided to strip the old wallpaper from the plaster walls of his 14-month-old son's bedroom. His work sent dust up everywhere--on the carpet, in the air, all over him (he wasn't wearing a mask) and drifting throughout the house.
As he told his "weekend DIY warrior" story I immediately stopped him and asked if the walls were covered with lead-based paint. He had no idea. When I told him of the implications of lead poisoning for his son and himself he stopped in his tracks. He halted his work and called the local health department to ask for a lead dust test.
Fortunately, they found the inside walls lead-free, but the exterior walls and window sills were covered in lead paint. He said it never occurred to him that there might be lead paint because the house was "so nice."
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that as many as 8 million renovations occur each year that could generate dangerous levels of lead dust, which even in miniscule amounts can harm children.
Lead, a heavy metal once widely used in paints, gasoline, and other products is a potent neurotoxin, causing learning disabilities, speech delays, hearing loss and even aggressive and violent behavior in children. Children with lead poisoning are seven times more likely to drop out of school and six times more likely to end up in the juvenile justice system. In adults, lead poisoning can result in anemia, kidney damage, a 46% increase in the rate of early mortality, and impotence and sterility in men.
In the almost 20 years since Congress directed the EPA to address the dangers of improperly removing lead paint during renovations or repairs, approximately 17 million American children have been exposed to harmful levels of lead. Lead poisoning is indiscriminate, affecting urban, rural, and suburban communities and low, middle and upper income families.
The EPA's Renovation, Repair and Painting Rule (RRP) is a critical step toward preventing tens of thousands more children from being poisoned through improper disturbances of lead-based paint. Despite the overwhelming scientific evidence of the threat posed by unsafe work practices, home renovation work has been largely unregulated throughout U.S.
The RRP Rule is a common sense law that requires contractors who work in older homes and child-occupied facilities to take precautions to avoid creating and spreading lead dust, and to clean up any dust that is generated.For instance, we regard as reasonable the requirements to do wet sanding instead of dry sanding and using 6 mil. plastic in the work area to catch the dust and paint chips and then properly rolling it up and disposing of it. The wet sanding can effectively eliminate most of the dust and covering the floor in plastic prevents whatever dust there is from being ground into the floors and carpet, making it accessible and a hazard to children. In addition, we view the requirement to wipe down the area with soap and water--no special cleaners or detergents are necessary--as a no-cost effort that helps remove lead dust.
We also feel the RRP Rule isn't perfect. One way we'd like to improve it involves post-remediation clearance testing. Right now it is a "sight" inspection done by wiping a cloth over the area and examining it for dust. For less than $15 per test, you can send the dust swipe to a lab to ensure there is no lead present.
But all in all, we regard RRP as a major step forward for lead poisoning prevention. As we mark National Lead Poisoning Prevention Awareness on Oct. 23-30, it is a good time to pause and think about how we can all help eradicate this completely preventable illness and give all children the opportunity to live in safe and healthy homes.
Ruth Ann Norton is the executive director of the Coalition to End Childhood Lead Poisoning, a non-profit organization that creates and promotes policies and programs to eradicate childhood lead poisoning.
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