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Peeling Paint? Cracked China? It's Time to Get the Lead Out

February 13, 1993|PATRICK MOTT

If you feel you've already been driven to a sufficiently jangled state of paranoia by Tylenol poisoning, radon, Alar and the latest tainted meat fiasco, you'd probably better turn to the comics quick. You need a little soothing. I recommend "Calvin and Hobbes."

If, however, you're one of those edge-dwelling types who order that poison blowfish at Japanese restaurants and believe life would be a lot more fun if football players wore spiked helmets, read on for more giggles. Today's subject is lead.

We are coming to realize that lead, our faithful companion on many a fishing and scuba diving trip, is not the bosom pal we once thought it was. The Cassandras among us will say, in fact, that it is probably out to kill us, as they spend their time pirouetting through their homes, ever vigilant for rogue molecules of lead that might pounce at any moment.

The more sensible, like Kathy Karlheim, see lead as a substance to be controlled, not necessarily feared, something to be used sparingly and not to be breathed or eaten. Something, above all, to be found.

Karlheim, who is the assistant director of the UCI Regional Poison Center, said that although public awareness of the dangers of lead poisoning has increased, most of the victims aren't old enough to have made the connection yet. While adults may suffer lead buildup in their systems as a result of exposure over time at certain work sites, Karlheim said that children are in the most danger in and around the home.

The principal source of lead in most older homes, she said, is paint. Lead was banned from use in household paint in 1978, but, said Karlheim, houses older than that may still have leaded paint on the walls and other surfaces. And, because of its age, the paint may be cracking, peeling or chipping.

Enter the young child, who, said Karlheim, often exhibits "a hand-to-mouth phenomenon; whatever gets into their hands goes into their mouths." A possible giveaway: a certain area of wall or baseboard in a child's play area that shows more scarring over a short time.

Leaded paint in and of itself is not a danger, however, said Marcia Stone, Ph.D., an organic chemistry specialist and the president of Massachusetts-based Hybrivet Systems, which manufactures a household lead testing kit called Lead Check.

"If it's just sitting on the wall, lead isn't exuding out of the paint," she said. "It's when you start to disturb it that you have problems."

If you want to remove leaded paint, said Stone, the best method is to use a wet chemical stripper. The worst is to sand the paint off and create large amounts of lead-contaminated dust that can be breathed or ingested.

Another common source of household lead poisoning is seemingly innocent tableware. Glazes containing lead have been used in many forms of pottery, earthenware, bone china and porcelain. When the glaze is properly formulated and fired, the lead is sealed in and will not leach from the surface. However, said Stone, some imported tableware, or tableware that is chipped or cracked, can expose the lead, which can then leach into any food or drink. Prolonged microwaving or dishwashing also can expose the lead, she said.

If a piece of, say, china, cracks or chips and you suspect the presence of lead, the piece should be discarded or used for decoration only. Also, Stone said, highly decorated, multicolored "inside" surfaces on china, old china or china that features decorations on top of the glaze probably indicate the presence of lead.

Leaded crystal, too, poses a danger, but only if liquid, such as brandy or wine, is left in a leaded crystal decanter for long periods. If liquid is to be decanted, Stone said, it should be drunk all at once and not left in the decanter, where lead can leach into the liquid over time.

Even solder in water pipe joints contains lead. Low-lead solder has been used in such joints since 1986, but household water pipes older than that may be joined with solder with a lead content of 25% or higher. Letting water that is to be drunk or used in cooking run for a minute can carry away much of the leached lead, said Stone, or a filter specifically designed to remove lead can be installed.

How much lead is too much? A child between the ages of 1 and 6 can become severely poisoned by ingesting one milligram of lead paint dust each day, Stone said. This is equal to about three granules of sugar. Critical amounts vary in adults, she said.

Perhaps the simplest and least expensive way to check for lead on any surface, Karlheim said, is to buy one of several brands of lead test kits, which are usually available at home improvement stores. The Lead Check kit, for instance, is priced at about $6 and contains two swabs. If the tip of the swabs turn red when brushed against a surface, that surface contains lead.

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