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Toxic Homes: The Lead Poison Threat

By guest writer Tim Pye

I feel so upset. So sad. So guilty. And first and fore-most so scared. My 18 month old son deserves so much more than to be lead poisoned. All I can do now that I have found the source is to eliminate it. And keep him away until then. And I’m heartbroken.

These are the despairing words of a mother who found out too late that there were lead hazards in her home. In the UK, the LEAPP Alliance attempts to reduce such cases by raising awareness of the risks. Because despite the risks of lead in the home, it is possible to prevent poisoning.

With the World Health Organisation’s International Lead Poisoning Prevention Week starting soon on the 23rd October, this is a good time to get the word out about this silent and often hidden hazard.

Old lead piping was previously commonplace in homes

The list of hazards in UK homes traditionally includes cold, damp, mould, poor air quality, noise, and over-crowding. Yet ask the same question in America, and lead poisoning is very likely to be mentioned as well.

Housing and health policy in the UK however seems to have a blind spot regarding lead exposure and poisoning, even though lead exposure is estimated to cost the country around £6.8 billion per year.

Hidden Threat

Lead is widespread and was used in old paint, petrol and plumbing. It can get into water, soil and dust, and can also be found in other objects particularly older toys, drinking glasses, ceramics, and jewellery.

The use of lead paint in homes was banned in 1992

It is a particular hazard in housing. Around 55% of UK homes were built before lead paint was labelled (1963). Around 82% of homes were built before most lead paint was banned (1992). Today, around 6-9 million homes probably still have some lead pipes or lead-soldered copper piping. The problem is that the residents may not be aware that the threat exists.

Lead and Health

Studies have found a link between the presence of lead (a widely used metal) and harm to health throughout life, and even before birth, contributing to:

Reproductive problems including miscarriage, premature birth, low birth weight, and delayed puberty.

Neurological problems including IQ loss, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, lower academic achievement, decreased hearing, and language difficulties essential tremor.

Psychological problems including problem behaviour, depression, anxiety, and panic attacks.

Cardiovascular problems including heart attack, stroke, and increased blood pressure.

Renal problems arising from reduced kidney function.

It takes very little lead to cause problems. In the USA, the amount of lead considered safe in food for children is just 2.2 millionths of a gram – that’s about the weight of 1/18th of an eyelash.

Risks to Child Health

Children face a particular risk. It is estimated that around 214,000 UK children have elevated blood lead concentrations. The true figure is unknown as most people are never tested.

Children are at most risk because they absorb more lead than adults, their brains and nervous system are more sensitive, and they are more likely than adults to put their hands, or non-food items, in their mouths and ingest dust or dirt.

Lead exposure in pregnant or breastfeeding women is also a particular concern because it can result in exposure to the developing baby.

Even if lead is present in the home, it is still possible to keep safe. The steps advised by experts are:

Take off outdoor shoes as soon as you enter your home.

Wash your hands before eating.

Clean your home regularly with a wet mop or HEPA-filter vacuum cleaner.

Don’t dry-sand or scrape off lead paint in your home.

Check the Housing Health and Safety Rating System (HHSRS). The relevant information is in section 7, page 78.

If redecorating or renovating your home, see the DEFRA guide to keep safe.

Raising Awareness

The leappalliance is working with SHAC to raise awareness of lead poisoning risks, and how to prevent it causing health problems for tenants and residents. If you would like to know more, you can see leappalliance.org.uk to join and find out more. You can also contact them at info@leappalliance.org.uk.

Download the Defra guide if you are renovating or redecorating your home

If you are concerned about lead hazards and exposure in your home your may wish to contact your landlord quoting the Healthy Housing Safety Rating System (download the full guide for more details, and see section 7, page 78). You can also ask your local authority environmental protection team to conduct a risk assessment.


Tim Pye is a volunteer with the LEAPP Alliance and is not a qualified expert. If you have concerns about possible exposure to lead, contact your doctor or the emergency health services in the first instance.

Credits:

  • Images Courtesy of Public Health – Seattle & King County.
  • Artwork by Amy Camber.

15 October 2022


The views expressed in this article are the author’s own.

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