Food manufacturers, legislators and toxicology experts alike are taking steps to lower the amount of lead in our food, water, homes and, ultimately, our bodies. The National Food Processors Assn., for instance, has recommended a voluntary phase-out of cans that contain lead solder. And the Food and Drug Administration, which in 1971 had placed a ceiling on the amount of lead allowed to leach from ceramic dishware, lowered that ceiling in 1979 and is considering lowering it once again.
But the lag between a call to action and action itself is often a long one. Consider that while only about 5% of food cans manufactured in the United States still contain lead solder--down from more than 90% a decade ago--over a billion lead-soldered cans remain in use. (How many are imported from other countries is anybody's guess.)
A second problem: The FDA doesn't have the resources to check every single piece of ceramic ware that is imported from countries where lead-leaching limits are less strict. Large shipments are only spot-checked as they enter ports of call.
Then too, while brand new or almost new plumbing may be lead-free, as many as one in five households across the country may contain leaded pipes that are leaching dangerous levels of the toxic metal into tap water.
Fortunately, consumers can protect themselves by taking matters into their own hands.
One way is to test water coming from kitchen and bathroom faucets. That's especially important in homes built before 1930, when pipes were often made of lead, and those built between 1930 and the mid '80s, when builders often installed copper plumbing in place of lead, but still joined the pipes with lead solder. You can tell if your pipes contain the toxic metal by the color. Lead is dull gray rather than bright silver and scratches easily with a house key.
Of course, the only way to be certain whether there is lead in your water is to have it analyzed. The best method is to collect a water sample from the tap and send it to a state-certified laboratory. Your state water department or local health department can help you find a lab capable of running the test, which can cost anywhere from $15 to $40 per sample.
Call the EPA's Safe Drinking Water Hotline, (800) 426-4791. Staff members will give you the phone number of your state regulatory agency and answer general questions about policies and regulations regarding the water supply. The EPA also publishes a book, "Lead and Your Drinking Water."
But what about the dishes? Most of the dinnerware we use contains lead in its glaze. With repeated use, any such plate can flake lead.
Don't use antique dishes such as family heirlooms without checking them first to see whether they leach lead. American leaching limits for ceramic dishes were established less than 20 years ago.
What about the lead in your paint? It was not until 1977 that the Consumer Product Safety Commission restricted the amount of lead in household paint. That means millions of American children and their parents live in housing that may contain toxic levels of lead. Such paint eventually turns to dust, which is easily absorbed by the body.
Unfortunately, getting rid of the problem isn't easy. The best methods are those that disturb the paint the least. Sanding, scraping or removing lead paint with a heat gun can release lead particles into the air. That's why anyone moving into a house or apartment with lead paint should remove it before taking up residence. The safest approach is to hire professionals who wear disposable coveralls and respirators, and who protect the floors with plastic and seal heating ducts.
Whatever you do, and that means whether or not you move into a house with old lead paint, health authorities recommend screening children between the ages of 9 months and 6 years regularly for blood lead levels.