Lead Poisoning in Old Homes: DIYers Beware

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lead poisoningWASHINGTON -- If you've been putting off repairing a peeling windowsill, or you're thinking of knocking out a wall, listen up: Check how old your house is. You may need to take steps to protect your kids from dangerous lead.

The risk of lead-based paint from older homes is back in the news, as the government considers tightening the definition of lead poisoning in babies, toddlers and preschoolers. Lower levels than previously thought may harm their developing brains.

That's a scary-sounding message. But from a practical standpoint, it's not clear how much would change if the government follows that advice. Already there's been a big drop in childhood lead poisoning in the U.S. over the past few decades. Public health programs have targeted the youngsters most at risk -- poor children living in crumbling housing, mostly in cities - to try to get them tested and their homes cleaned up.

But specialists say it can be a risk in more affluent areas, too, as do-it-yourselfers embark on fix-ups without knowing anything about an environmental hazard that long ago faded from the headlines.

The main value of the proposed change may be in increasing awareness of how to avoid lead in everyday life.

"What we need to do is prevent the exposure in the first place," said Dr. Nicholas Newman, who directs the environmental health and lead clinic at Cincinnati Children's Hospital.

There are lots of ways people can be exposed to lead: Soil polluted from the leaded gasoline of yesteryear. Old plumbing with lead solder. Improperly using lead-glazed pottery or leaded crystal with food. Certain jobs that expose workers to the metal. Hobbies like refinishing old painted furniture.

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Sometimes even imported toys or children's jewelry can have illegal lead levels, prompting recalls if they're caught on the U.S. market.

But the main way that U.S. children are exposed is from layers of old paint in buildings built before 1978, when lead was banned from residential paint.

Sure, the walls might have been painted over recently, and there may be no obvious paint chips to attract a tot crawling around on the floor. But friction from opening and closing windows and doors allows tiny leaded particles to make their way into household dust - and youngsters then get it on their hands that go into their mouths, explained Dr. John Rosen, a lead poisoning specialist at the Children's Hospital at Montefiore in New York City.

Very high lead levels can cause coma, convulsions, even death, fortunately a rarity today. But lower levels, especially in children under 6, can harm a child's brain, can reduce IQ and cause other learning, attention and behavioral problems - without any obvious symptoms to alert the parent.

How much is too much? Until now, the definition of lead poisoning in young children was 10 micrograms of lead per deciliter of blood. But in a draft report last fall, the National Toxicology Program analyzed recent scientific research to conclude there's good evidence that levels lower than 10 are a risk. Now advisers to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are urging that agency to lower the definition to 5 micrograms for now, periodically reassessing.

If the CDC agrees, its advisers estimated that could classify about 450,000 children with lead poisoning, up from roughly 250,000 today.

At these levels, there's no treatment for the child other than to end the ongoing exposure - clean up the house, Newman stressed. That's why prevention is so important. And while the youngest children are the most vulnerable, lead's not good for anyone's brain, so he advises taking common-sense precautions before potential exposures like renovating an old home.

What should families do? Here's advice from the Environmental Protection Agency and public health agencies:

• Check the age of your house. At checkups for babies through age 5, pediatricians are supposed to ask if you live in a home built before 1960, or one built before 1978 that's recently undergone renovation. The answers help guide who may need a blood test to check lead levels. Some states require testing of toddlers on Medicaid.

• Wash kids' hands before they eat, good advice no matter where you live or how old your house.

• Clean up paint chips immediately, and regularly wash toys that tots put in their mouths.

• Regularly wash windowsills and floors where paint dust can collect.

• If you're planning repairs or renovation in an old building, use lead-certified contractors who must follow EPA rules to minimize exposure from the work and can perform quality tests to see if your old paint really contains lead.

• If you rent and have peeling paint, notify your landlord. Many cities and states have lead-abatement rules, and programs to contact for help.

• Aside from paint, take off shoes at the door, to minimize tracking in lead-tainted soil.

• Use only cold water for drinking, cooking and making baby formula, and run it for 15 to 30 seconds. Hot tap water can pick up more lead from older plumbing than cold water.

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Lead Poisoning in Old Homes: DIYers Beware

It's a scary housing market out there -- and not just because of home values. In this slideshow from This Old House, home inspectors from across the country sent some of the funniest, most eye-popping sights they've ever had the misfortune of stumbling upon. Click through to share their grief!


Photos courtesy of the ASHI Reporter

Whoops! Who moved the house?


Bill Camosci
National Property Inspections of Central CT, Inc.
Cromwell, Conn.


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Thomas Sanson
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Rochester, N.Y.


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If this isn't a set up for a Jeff Foxworthy joke, I don't know what is. Click the next image to see just how much faith this homeowner has in his plumbing skills.


Chris W. McDougall
Apex Home Inspection
Santa Cruz, Calif.


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Shows how much faith this homeowner had in his plumbing skills. Rather than test the leaky faucet, he opted to wash the dishes in the bathtub.


Chris W. McDougall
Apex Home Inspection
Santa Cruz, Calif.


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This basement toilet seat is 48 inches above the floor. Hand rails are recommended.


Steve Anderson
Anderson AmeriSpec
Germantown, Tenn.


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If you tilt your head, it looks just fine. Unless, of course, you're into the Tim Burton look.


Rich Madore
Pillar To Post Home Inspections
Newington, Conn.


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Ever heard of water hammer? It's that banging sound caused by air in the pipes. Well, this family used an actual hammer to cancel out the noise.


Eric Mills
E&E Inspect
Oreland, Pa.


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Do you think this is what the civic inspector had in mind when insisting that the electrical panel be labeled?


Kevin Hawes
Assured Home Inspections
Calgary, Alberta


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"Sure, we can put a window there! All we need to do is remove the post from under that big beam and then nail a 2x6 to the wall so the beam doesn't fall down—and take the house with it."


Dan Chapleski
True North Inspection Services
Coeur d’Alene, Idaho


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What man cave would be complete without a makeshift urinal? You should see his other funnel -- it looks like a toilet.


Thomas Sansone
National Property Inspections
Rochester, N.Y.


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So, is the cottage cheese container holding up the shelf or is the shelf holding the cottage cheese container tight so sewer gas does not escape? Or is it both?


Dan Howard
Home Inspections by Dan Howard
Freeport, Pa.


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The seller kindly left the dog in the back yard during the inspection, with me all alone. I was supposed to talk sweetly to it. It did not work, and I did not enter.


Brandon Dyles
Picture Perfect Inspections
Bartlett, Tenn.


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Try as I might, I haven't been able to find a reference to frogs in the National Electrical Code.


Bryant Warren
HouseMaster Inspections
Broken Arrow, Okla.


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I think it is safe to assume that this furnace is not venting properly. I inserted a smoke emitter into the burn chamber and all of the smoke backed up into the attic. A rain cap that was installed on the chimney exhaust left little room for venting.


Brandon Dyles
Picture Perfect Inspections
Bartlett, Tenn.


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Ranger Rick was none too happy when we asked him to pay his share of the mortgage.


Dan Gartrell
Homestar Real Estate Services, Inc.
Gainesville, Va.


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The furnace thermostat wire had shorted out on a new, still-vacant house, and this was the inside temperature reading I got. Laminate counter tops were de-laminating.



Alvin C. Miller
Hawkeye Home Inspections LLC
Wellman, Iowa


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What was the builder thinking ending the downspout right above the electrical panel? After 15 years, guess what the inside of this panel looked like.


Scott Stegall
Carolina HomePro Inspections
Rock Hill, S.C.


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This is a car battery jumper cable attached to the main electric utility service line. The cord leads back to the electric panel for a house with no power. Why pay for electric when you can do this?


Gary Kershaw
Pillar to Post
Philadelphia, Pa.


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Why screens on dryer vent backdraft dampers are frowned upon. I found this in a 3½-year-old house.


G. Gilbert Engler
Master Home Inspectors, Inc.
Annandale, Va.


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This liquid propane tank is being used inside the house to operate a gas stove—a big no-no.


Andy Moore
American Heritage Home Inspection
Seminole, Fl


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That sheet metal should hold up the rafters at least until we get it sold! This house had an attic fire and was supposedly repaired. The whole roof will have to be rebuilt again.


Alvin C. Miller
Hawkeye Home Inspections, LLC
Wellman, Iowa


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Looks like this little guy wasn't licensed to work around electricity. Next time, call in the professionals.


Jeff Leighton
Inspect-It 1st Property Inspection
Scarborough, Me.


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During our unusually cold temps in January, this unfortunate squirrel thought that he'd be OK if he just went down the chimney and followed the source of the heat. He ended up inside the furnace cabinet and got caught between two sections.


Rick Michalicek
Moore Home Inspection Services
St. Louis, Mo.


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I don't believe this tackle box meets the electrical code in any state or province.


Alden Gibson
Inspections by Gibson
Breslau, Ontario


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One of the many reasons why Santa needs life insurance.


Rich Madore
Pillar To Post Home Inspections
Newington, Conn.


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Not the greatest use for an old bicycle inner tube, but at least they're recycling: This is a steam pipe in a 4-unit apartment building.


Stuart Keeshin
Keeshin Inspection Services
Chicago, Ill.


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Quite a two-fer! This doorstop also makes water.


David Grudzinski
Advantage Home Inspections
Cranston, R.I.


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Rust, corrosion, and a gaping hole in a vent pipe that angles downward (hot air rises, you know). Sometimes, you just have to wonder.


Clay Ridings
Preferred Home Inspections
Wilmington, Del.


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They don't build 'em like they used to. This 100-gallon electric water heater was built in March of 1938 and is still delivering hot water like it was built yesterday!


Rich Madore
Pillar To Post Home Inspections
Newington, Conn.


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