MySafetySign Blog

Lead poisoning in children? Blame old bathtubs

October 20 – 26, 2013 was National Lead Poisoning Prevention Week and safety experts told us some alarming truths about lead poisoning in children.

Older tubs can hide lead poisoning risks for children. [Image by thephotographymuse]

Despite being banned in 1978, lead-based paint continues to be the number one source for lead exposure in children. But it is not the only source.  New cases reveal that lead can be found in some unexpected places at your home – bathtubs, for instance.

The need for continued vigilance when dealing with lead-based products was highlighted recently when a couple, who were remodeling their old home, tested their kids for lead exposure. Eric and Laura Rudeseal’s two-year-old son and six-year-old daughter contained high levels of lead in their blood. Much to the parent’s surprise, it wasn’t the lead in the paint but in the bathtubs of their 1964 home that put the kids at risk.

Like the Rudeseals, several families with kids have fallen victim to lead poisoning by bathtubs. Dean Lovvorn, a lead risk assessor in Texas, calls bathtubs “the second most common culprit” of lead poisoning after lead paint.

Where can you find lead at home?

Older homes are more likely to contain high amount of lead in them. Nearly 80,000,000 American homes were built and painted before lead-based paint was banned in 1978. But lead in other products, barring food preparation products, is still not regulated.

Lead is present in the cast iron or steel tubs coated with a porcelain glaze. As the glaze comes off with time, lead from the glaze can percolate into the bath water. If children drink the bathwater or put their wet hands or toys from the tub in their mouth, chances of lead poisoning increase. Other places in the house where lead may be present include windowsills, sliding doors, pipes, and valves. Consumer products – some imported toys, jewelry, cosmetics, glazed pottery, or ceramic cookware – could potentially also contain traces of lead.

Omema , a Nigerian girl is poisoned by lead and can’t hear or speak now [Image by H Murdock of VOA News]

Lead exposure is a global problem

The problem of lead exposure is not limited to the U.S., where the Environment Protection Agency recognized Oct 20-26 as the National Lead Poisoning Prevention Week. For the first time this year, it was also the International Lead Poisoning Prevention Week of Action. Lead poisoning is a cause of worry especially in developing nations. According to the World Health Organization, every year 143,000 people die from lead poisoning worldwide and about 600,000 new cases of children with impaired cognitive functions are registered, which can be attributed to lead exposure, according to a recent article in Wired.

How to test lead exposure?

Lead poisoning is preventable, but first you have to know that it’s a potential risk in your home. A test kit available in hardware stores can detect the presence of lead at your home, but exposure to lead can only be confirmed with a blood test. Children below the age of six are most vulnerable to lead exposure because their brains and central nervous systems are still developing. Children with lead exposure less than 5 µg/dL may exhibit learning disabilities, decreased IQ level, behavioral problems, and attention deficit disorders. Exposure level of less than 10 µg/dL in children can result in delayed puberty and decreased hearing, according to the CDC.

Many states and communities offer free blood tests to detect the presence of lead, and conduct various education and awareness events.

Special care during construction and renovation

While switching to showers can be a preventive measure against lead poisoning due to bathtubs in old houses, families should also be careful that children do not have access to peeling paint or chewable surfaces painted with lead-based paint. Renovation of the pre-1978 homes can release lead in the environment. Pregnant women and children should be particularly wary during renovation and should refrain from activities that disturb old paint, like cleaning up paint debris after the work is completed. Lead can be scattered when paint is disturbed during destruction, remodeling, or removal and can be accidentally ingested. Leadfreekids.org lists some important safeguards to prevent lead dust from spreading throughout the home.