A lot of warnings about lead exposure focus on the health effects on children. That’s because their developing brains and nervous systems are particularly sensitive to the substance.
But lead exposure is also responsible for deaths among adults. In fact, they’re at a rate 10 times higher than previously thought, according to a new study.
Researchers examined data on 14,000 U.S. adults who were followed for about 20 years, including an initial test of their blood lead level.
Based on this, researchers estimate that lead exposure is responsible for 412,000 adult deaths every year in the United States.
This is due to lead increasing the risk of high blood pressure, stroke, and ischemic heart disease.
The new study was published this month in The Lancet Public Health.
So the best way to reduce your risk is to limit your exposure to lead. Here are five ways to protect your health and that of your family.
Fix peeling, chipped paint
One of biggest sources of lead for families is lead-based paint in homes and apartment buildings built before 1978.
This material may be buried under layers of newer paint.
If the paint is in good condition, it’s usually not a problem. Chipped, peeling, or cracked lead paint, though, is a hazard. To keep paint from deteriorating even more, cover it with duct tape or contact paper.
In addition, lead dust can form through friction on the paint, such as along window sills, door frames, stairs, and railings. Even small amounts of lead dust can be a hazard.
Children can swallow paint chips or ingest lead dust when they put their hands, toys, or other objects in their mouth. Adults can also eat lead dust that collects on plates, utensils, or food.
If you live in an older house or apartment with lead-based paint — or don’t know what kind of paint is there — you can take steps to reduce ingestion of lead dust.
Wash your children’s hands and your own before meals. Also, wash your children’s hands after play and before bedtime.
Use soap and water to regularly wash bottles, pacifiers, toys, stuffed animals, and other household objects that your children use or play with.
Regularly clean up dust in your home. Use damp paper towels to clean the window sills and wells. Wet mop the floor. If using a vacuum cleaner, choose one with a HEPA filter.
If you plan on renovating your older home, have it checked by a licensed lead inspector. Also, read the Environmental Protection Agency’s The Lead-Safe Certified Guide to Renovate Right before starting renovations.
To minimize lead exposure, children and pregnant women shouldn’t be around during renovation of a pre-1978 house.
Also, ask sellers or landlords whether an older home has lead-based paint. They must disclose this information, if known, beforehand.
Don’t track lead into your home
Lead occurs naturally in soils, sometimes in high concentrations.
But soil can also become contaminated from exterior lead-based paint on buildings and playgrounds. Industrial sites and leaded gasoline can also contaminate soil.
To avoid tracking lead into your house, leave your shoes at the door. And wash your hands after you come inside.
When children are outside, keep them from playing in bare soil. You can also cover bare soil with mulch, wood chips, or grass, or provide a sandbox for children to play in.
To discourage children from playing in bare soil next to your house, plant shrubs alongside the foundation, or cover the bare soil with mulch or wood chips.
Keep lead out of your water
Lead can leach into drinking water from lead-contaminated pipes, faucets, and solder.
Some local water systems contain lead. But lead in your drinking water is more likely to come from household plumbing, especially in homes built before 1986.
The EPA provides reports on water quality for local water systems. This is no guarantee of lead-free water, though.
“Even if a system reports that there’s no lead in the water, if somebody lives in a home with soldered pipes, then there can be lead leaching into water that’s sitting in the pipes,” said Dr. Rob Brown, author of “Toxic Home/Conscious Home: A Mindful Approach to Wellness at Home.”
You can also have your household water tested for lead by an EPA-certified laboratory.
To reduce your lead exposure, flush the tap for at least one minute before using water for drinking or cooking. To reduce waste, you can save this water for cleaning or for watering plants.
Always use cold water for cooking, drinking, and making baby formula. Hot water from the faucet dissolves more lead from the pipes.
Practicing this at home will also help protect you when you travel.
“It’s good to get into the habit because then you do it automatically,” Brown told Healthline. “If you’re cooking at somebody else’s home or at a hotel, then you don’t have to think about it.”
If you use a water filter, make sure it’s certified for lead removal by NSF International (formerly National Sanitation Foundation). Also, change the cartridge as often as recommended by the manufacturer.
Play, work, and live safe
Paint and household plumbing aren’t the only sources of lead.
You might be exposed to lead if you work in certain environments, such as scrap metal or construction companies, foundries, or factories manufacturing ceramics, bullets, jewelry, or electronics.
Some hobbies also use lead-based products, including bullets and BB ammo, fishing sinkers, pottery or stained glass, jewelry, certain model paints, or car and boat repair supplies.
If you work in a job or have a hobby that uses lead or lead-based products, take steps to keep the lead out of your home.
Wash your face, hands, and uncovered skin as well as change your clothes before you go home or before eating meals. Wash your work or hobby clothes separately from the rest of your family’s clothing.
Also, keep your work and hobby materials in an area separate from your living space. And practice good habits.
“If you’re using any of these lead-based paints, lacquers, or inks, it’s important to not eat or drink in that area,” said Brown.
Eat healthy foods
Lead crystal or lead-glazed pottery or porcelain can contaminate food with lead. So don’t use containers made from these materials to store or serve food unless the container is certified lead-free.
Old porcelain bathtubs can also be a hazard.
“When the glaze starts coming off, the lead that was in the glaze can get in the bath water,” said Brown. “Then children drink the water during a bath or they put their bath toys in their mouth, and all that can be contaminated with lead.”
The Environmental Defense Fund also reports that several common foods contain detectable levels of lead. This includes fruit juices, root vegetables such as sweet potatoes and carrots, and certain cookies.
Even homegrown vegetables can become a hazard if you grow them in soil with high amounts of lead.
“You think you’re doing a good thing by growing your own fruit and vegetables,” said Brown. “But the ground around a house can be contaminated with lead, especially around the foundation, and particularly in older homes.”
However, several healthy foods can help keep lead from being stored in a child’s body. This is only a temporary way of protecting your child and doesn’t replace reducing your child’s lead exposure.
These foods include:
- Calcium-rich foods: milk, cheese, yogurt, tofu, and green, leafy vegetables
- Iron-rich foods: lean meat, beans, fortified cereals, and peanut butter
- Foods high in vitamin C: oranges, grapefruits, tomatoes, and green peppers
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that most children be screened for lead poisoning with a blood test, especially those with a high risk of exposure.
If you’re concerned about your lead exposure or your children’s, talk to you doctor or other health professional.