Worried about lead poisoning in your home? What to do

By Wendy Koch, USA TODAY:

As more children are considered at risk for lead poisoning, many parents may wonder how to prevent the problem, especially if they have an older home with lead-based paint.

It’s a common problem. Most U.S. homes were built before 1978, when lead paint was banned, and half of those — about 38 million — contain lead, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Many pose a hazard to young children, so much so that the U.S. government this week cut by half the amount of lead that will trigger medical monitoring and other actions for kids ages 1 to 5. As a result, up to 365,000 more children could now be considered at risk for lead poisoning at a time when federal funds to monitor the problem have been slashed.

What’s a parent to do? “The best precaution is to have your child tested,” says Ruth Ann Norton, executive director of the Baltimore-based Coalition to End Childhood Lead Poisoning, an advocacy group. She says children who live in or frequently visit homes built before 1978 should definitely be tested, as should those living near a known hazard, such as smelters. She says most insurance companies will cover such testing, especially if the child is under age 6 and the home is older.

Norton says young children are most at risk, because 95% of brain development occurs before the age of 6. Still, she says lead poisoning affects adults, too. For pregnant women, it can result in miscarriages, stillbirths and low-birthweight babies, and for other adults, it can increase the risk of hypertension, cardiac arrest, liver problems and early death.

“If you get an elevated level, it’s almost too late” to take action, she says. She recommends that people test their homes to prevent problems. Norton answers USA TODAY’s questions about home testing:

Q: Should pre-1978 homes be tested even if no children live there?

A: Have it tested, especially if a woman of childbearing years lives there, if you’re planning a renovation or repair or if you have family and friends with children who may stay or visit.

Q: Are home-testing kits OK?

A: They’re not sufficient, but they can give you a leading indicator. The gold standard is to have a lead-based paint inspection and have your home checked for leaded dust. The full paint inspection is done with an X-ray-fluorescent machine. The test for lead dust is done using an approved wipe method. Your local health or housing department may provide that testing for free, based on income. If you’re renting, some states require landlords to test prior to occupancy. Homeowners should contact a company to conduct lead inspections and testing. They are certified under standards set by the EPA. It generally costs between $150 and $300. Some companies will do a visual inspection for less, $75 to $125.

Q: Can people do their own inspections and repairs?

A: Consumers should know the age of the home’s construction and look for chipping, peeling or flaking paint. Do not try to dry-scrape that paint or use a heat gun, because that will exacerbate the creation of leaded dust. People should get trained (to do repairs). You have to lay 6-millimeter plastic and put up protective coverings around door and window areas. You have to wet scrape and repaint. If you can afford to hire a certified contractor, we’d recommend it.

Q: How much will it cost to have professional lead abatement done?

A:. It depends on the scope of the job. If windows need to be replaced, that costs $250 to $400 per window depending on the type. Some jobs are $2,000 to $3,000, some are $20,000 to $30,000. If you’re already doing a full remodel, the additional costs of using lead-safe practices is minimal.

Q: Are there grants or loans to help cover the costs?

A: A lot of state programs do have low-interest loans to do lead abatement, regardless of income. Maryland is one example. Priority is often given to a home where children have been identified as lead-poisoned or homes with lower incomes. Banks will often allow you to fold the cost into home equity loans. If you have a poisoned child, you may be able to get a federal tax credit.

Q: Can frequent cleaning in a pre-1978 home prevent a problem?

A: As long as paint remains intact and in good shape, you should be OK. But frequently, you should wet mop and vacuum with a HEPA filter, wash kids’ hands and keep things out of their mouth. But if there’s chipping, peeling or flaking paints, you’re on a hamster wheel. You’ll never be able to clean enough to keep pace. You’ll have to fix it.