Lead. It’s something many people don’t consider as much as they should. While it was phased out of paint in homes in 1978, its production has increased over the years, particularly in China. This means it ends up in more items we purchase than we might realize.
In the US today, 1 in 3 children under the age of 18 (equating to more than 22,000,000 children) have had a blood lead level of 2.5 or higher in their lifetime. That is more than 150 times the level that is naturally occurring in our bodies. Even at trace levels, lead is a potent neurotoxin and there is no “safe” level of lead in a child’s blood. Even a small amount of lead can lead to permanent damage when children are exposed.
After her children were poisoned by lead in 2005, Tamara Rubin decided to bring the issue to light through a non-profit organization – Lead Safe America. She founded this organization in 2011 when she discovered parents nationwide faced the same difficulties as her when her kids were initially poisoned.
To help these parents address these challenges, Lead Safe America provides emergency intervention and support for families whose children have been diagnosed as positive for lead in their blood. They are also involved with outreach and education in how to prevent early childhood lead poisoning. They even offer support to parent-advocates so they can help other parents in the same situation.
I was able to sit down with Tamara Rubin and gain some insight into the roots of Lead Safe America as well as what families can do today to help protect their children from lead poisoning.
What inspired you to start the Lead Safe America Foundation?
My children were lead-poisoned in 2005, and that’s when I learned that there was no “safety-net”—nor even a good source for reliable, up-to-date information for parents of lead-poisoned kids. Many parents of lead-poisoned kids were homeowners and “middle-income”—like us, and so fell outside of the parameters of any existing agencies set up to help families.
I learned agencies were actually turning away families, and not offering them free resources – not even offering to give them information, because they did not meet their various guidelines (low-income / Section 8 / “disadvantaged/at risk”, etc.) I decided to create a national nonprofit to fill this gap—to help families everywhere, regardless of income, available resources, socio-economic status or race/ethnicity.
Poor and wealthy families alike need answers to the questions that come up and unfortunately, a very real and unexamined “reverse discrimination” was the norm ten years ago by many public health agencies—whose funding restricted who they helped, under what very narrow set of circumstances and and to what degree.
What advice do you have for families that are concerned about lead?
- Test your kids
- Test your home
- Consider testing your children’s schools, daycares—even Grandma’s house (any building constructed before the 1978 U.S. ban on lead-based paint)
For kids, we’re talking a blood lead test and testing of buildings/homes – testing includes dust sampling, paint testing and soil sampling. If your child tests “negative” for lead (under the detection limit of the test), great! If they test positive (even low positive) you then are armed with a baseline blood lead level – and can do everything you can to get the lead out of their environment to protect them from any further exposure (although no level of exposure is “safe”—and even the lowest blood lead levels pose some risk, the risk of damage from lead’s extreme neurotoxicity is also cumulative).
There’s a learning curve – but start learning everything you can now [even pre-conception if you can; I highly recommend pre-conception blood lead testing for women of childbearing age]. Our website – LeadSafeAmerica.org – launched just over one year ago, has nearly 500 pages of information and links to start your education and then you can continue your journey from there.
You have tested hundreds, if not thousands, of items for lead and shared those results online. Which results have surprised you the most?
Oh – gee…really nothing at all has been an actual surprise. It saddens me more than surprises me to find so many things with lead! For my readers, the biggest “surprises” were the Beatrix Potter Benjamin Bunny Wedgewood China baby cups – which tested between 20,000 and 75,000 parts per million lead (baby cups, for Pete’s sake!); and then of course, readers have been outraged by the vintage Pyrex – which has tested positive with levels as high as 200,000 ppm lead and higher.
That said, my biggest “surprise” was a nurse’s stethoscope – purchased new, this past year (at the time that I tested it); it was way over the limit of what was considered safe for lead (with safety limits only set in place for items intended for use by children)- and really… how many times has a parent been at a doctor’s office or at the hospital and the nurse or doctor gave the baby a stethoscope to play with? And one of the first things the kid does…is put it in their mouth… right?
How can people find out if their belongings contain lead?
Consumer goods testing is really hard for folks to do on their own; mostly you need to send things to a lab, and in those cases they often have to do “digestive” / destructive sampling – a process in which the item tested needs to be destroyed to determine the total lead (or arsenic/ mercury/ cadmium, etc.) content.
XRF testing is the best method for non-destructive testing of consumer goods. The XRF I have used primarily is a very sensitive, specialty instrument (they cost $40,000) that tests in Parts Per Million (PPM)—to as low as 5 ppm. However, most XRF instruments in common use (which – although still quite expensive – generally cost in the $10,000 to $20,000 range) are not designed to test in “parts per million” (PPM)—not designed to test at levels that detect and quantify a consumer good’s danger to children [with the CPSC determining that items intended for children should not be greater than 90-100 ppm lead].
Most XRF instruments are optimized and calibrated for identifying lead-based paint hazards in buildings under HUD standards—which are an order of magnitude less specific than we would want to see in a toy intended for a child. [The “less than one” milligram per centimeter squared reading which HUD inspectors call out as “negative” can actually represent paint with levels as high as 4,999 ppm lead.]
Reactive agent (“swab”) testing has likewise really been designed to test paint [ideally, paint that has been disturbed / exposed (e.g. is chipping or peeling)—and is not “encapsulated” by possible other layers of paint, which could prevent the chemical reagent from touching the actual lead-containing paint.] HOWEVER some consumer goods – if they have very high lead content on the surface and the surface is deteriorating or worn in any way – MAY test positive with a swab test. This includes some high-lead-content metal items (jewelry or decorative – such as candle sticks), some antique dishware (Franciscan Apple is a good example), and some toys (very rarely) or other consumer goods. Mostly, if a consumer good tests “negative” with a swab, that does NOT indicate it is definitely negative – or even that it is safe for a child; it only means that additional testing (or contacting the manufacturer about toxicity standards) should be done to get a more exact answer.
The Lead Safe America Foundation often has an XRF available to do consumer goods testing for free, and we also offer free lead-paint test kits to families.
Instead of looking for whether or not our consumer goods have lead, we really need to start demanding stricter manufacturing requirements. One example—that is in my opinion an egregious misuse of the restrictions— is that if a consumer good is labeled as “not intended for children” it is exempt from most restrictions, and is allowed to have unsafe levels of lead and cadmium, etc.. Specifically upsetting is costume jewelry—often sold as for “adult use” – but intrinsically very attractive to children, [and often, despite the label, obviously designed with children as the intended recipients—and often gifted to children as a “special” item!]
Additionally upsetting is the fact that total toxicant content on dishware and other items used with food and cooking is not regulated; only the leaching amounts of toxicants are regulated, and that only determines if toxicants are leaching at time of manufacture – when 5 or 10 years from now things may start to deteriorate and begin leaching, even if they passed initial leach-testing, but no-one is really going back later to determine the safety of these items as they age.
What tips can you share for choosing lead-free products?
I shop at Ikea (safe/ European manufacturing standards), I buy stainless steel (uncoated) and cast iron (uncoated) and glass / stainless cookware and dishes (clear / uncoated / undecorated.) We need to rid ourselves of this notion that cookware needs to be “pretty” – because usually it is the decorative elements that are toxic. I truly limit our shopping; we don’t have a lot of toys, my kids enjoy paper airplanes, cards, painting & drawing, balls, frisbees and lots of (mostly second-hand) Legos – and really I advise health-conscious parents to stay away from items manufactured for children before 2009.
To help further spread the message about lead poisoning in America, Tamara Rubin is directing a documentary titled MisLEAD: America’s Secret Epidemic. It should be released on DVD late this year.
Feature image courtesy of JD Hancock