By and large, lead in the environment is a legacy of bygone days. It’s now prohibited for use in plumbing, gasoline and all but a few specialized types of paint. Lead-bearing products are also pretty much gone from the marketplace. Foreign-made toys or other objects having some lead content occasionally sneak through and generate lots of buzz when they’re found, but instances are rare and consumer watchdogs generally catch them rapidly.
Nevertheless, everybody in Philadelphia, and in just about any other American city you can name, is exposed to lead. Once in place, it does not decompose into a more benign residue. So it’s in the ground as a result of particulates from automobile exhaust in the leaded-gasoline common from the mid 1920s to the end of 1995. It’s in the water flowing through the plumbing of older houses that still have lead pipes (phased out in 1930) and lead-based solder (banned in 1988) in copper, brass, and other more modern hardware. And it’s embedded in old paint (disallowed in 1978), often many layers below the surface. Young children and babies being carried by pregnant women, are the segment of the population chiefly affected by the trace quantities of lead remaining in the environment that may enter their bodies through their respiratory or digestive systems.
Peeling paint in buildings constructed before 1978 is popularly viewed as the primary culprit; it can be a hazard, not only in poorly maintained properties but in those where age, water leakage, abrasion, or other factors have caused paint buckling, cracking, or flaking. However, most experts agree that dust is the main causal factor. Indoors, by release resulting from friction or impact of surfaces whenever old painted windows are raised or lowered in their tracks or doors are opened or closed in their jambs, or by infiltration from behind walls, ceilings, or floors. Outdoors owing to disturbance of soil containing exhaust residues of leaded gasoline.
The federal government, through the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has addressed one key aspect of this issue. Contractors working on buildings containing lead paint are now required to follow procedures that keep dust and debris from spreading beyond the project area and to do thorough cleaning when the job is completed.
Beyond this, some cities and states have enacted laws or incentives to remove or effectively encapsulate lead paint in older housing. These statutes have proven to be only marginally effective because of the overwhelming cost of the work and the virtual impossibility of totally eliminating the problem.
Fortunately, individuals can take some simple but remarkably effective common-sense precautions to mitigate the hazard and assume responsibility for protecting their own families. Variations of these steps are promoted nationally by the EPA and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and locally by the Philadelphia Health Department. The guidelines principally include:
- Notify your landlord about peeling or chipping paint. If you own your home, hire a certified contractor to do the repair or do the job yourself following the guidelines in the EPA’s brochure “Renovate Right” – available online at www.epa.gov/lead/pubs/renovaterightbrochure.pdf.
- Vacuum up paint chips as soon as you see them, preferably using a machine labeled as having a “HEPA filter.”
- Wet-wipe hard surfaces like floors, windows, window frames and windowsills at least once a week. Use a mop or sponge with warm water and a general all-purpose cleaner or a cleaner made specifically for lead, then thoroughly rinse or dispose of sponges and mop heads.
- Wash children's hands, pacifiers, bottle nipples, toys, and stuffed animals often, especially before they eat and before nap and bed time.
- Keep play areas clean.
- Never cook with hot water from the tap; always start with cold, and let it run for a few seconds so water that’s been sitting in contact with old lead piping or solder goes down the drain before drinking or cooking with it.
- Always wash fresh fruit and vegetables to remove chemicals which may contain lead.
- Store food that won’t necessarily be washed before eating in covered containers.
- Keep children from chewing windowsills or other painted surfaces.
- Wipe or remove shoes before entering your home to avoid tracking in lead from soil.
- Keep work clothes at your job site or change before you touch your child.
- Feed your children healthy, balanced diets with foods high in calcium, iron, and vitamin C – which help reduce lead absorption.
You can get more detailed tips from the EPA’s brochure “Protect Your Family from Lead in Your Home;” it’s online at:
In addition, the Philadelphia Health Department offers a range of services, from free classes on various lead-related topics to speakers for your community, housing, or other group. Contact them at 215-685-2332 or its 24-hour information line at 215-685-2797.