By Larraine Roulston:
Tamara Rubin, executive director of the nonprofit Lead Safe America Foundation in Portland, Oregon, visits preschool facilities. Earlier this May, she pointed an X-ray fluorescence heavy-metal detector at a faded red rug in Angela Molloy Murphy’s preschool. The heart shaped rug was loaded with lead. Over time, this rug actually had become a reservoir for all the lead dust from deteriorating paint and chips tracked around on students’ shoes.
During the previous week, Rubin had visited 7 in-home preschools around Portland. All had a lead hazard of some sort, including contaminated cups and toys. From Minnesota to New Orleans, similar issues have shown up at dozens of other daycares and preschools, as well as homes and elementary schools.
Lead dust can linger indefinitely, posing a threat even in the absence of peeling paint. Rubin notes that if a school is made of bricks, the presence of paint may not be obvious, but closer examination will tell us otherwise. The heavy metal can also lace soil around schools, due to accumulated lead paint dust and years of leaded gasoline emissions from vehicles.
For centuries lead was added to paint to speed drying and increase durability. Construction during the early to mid-20th century is the most worrisome, yet risks may reside in and around any building constructed and painted before 1978, when lead was finally banned from residential paint sold in the U.S. Knowing that this substance was hazardous, paint manufacturers claimed that it was safe, even for children. But science is clear that children, especially those under the age of 6, face the greatest risk, as it can severely affect mental and physical development. For this age group, lead-based paint and lead-contaminated house dust are the most common sources of lead poisoning. Other sources include contaminated air, water and soil.
Homes are also plagued with lead contamination. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimate that today at least 4 million households where children reside are being exposed to high levels of lead. It reports that “No safe blood lead level in children has been identified. Lead exposure can affect nearly every system in the body. Because lead exposure often occurs with no obvious symptoms, it frequently goes unrecognized.” However, as diligent as parents may be, they have little control over the environment where their children attend school.
Several years ago, Asa Bradman, an environmental health expert at the University of California, Berkeley, discovered high levels of lead inside his daughter’s daycare facility. Since then, he has investigated environmental hazards at 40 early education facilities across Northern California, and found that 95% of them had lead dust present.
The CDC’s website details how childcare providers as well as parents can learn how to avoid lead exposure:
- Preventing children from playing in bare soil
- Making sure your child does not have access to peeling paint
- Washing hands and toys often, as they can become contaminated from household dust or exterior soil
- Wet-mopping floors and window components regularly
- Staying away from renovation sites if built before 1978
- Contacting the local health department about testing paint and dust in your school or home
- Avoiding candies imported from Mexico
- Using only cookware that is shown to be lead free
- Eliminating traditional folk medicine and cosmetics that may contain lead
- Removing recalled toys and toy jewelry
“If you can invest in lead abatement,” states Tracy Swinburn, a researcher at the University of Michigan Risk Science Center, “it starts to become worthwhile pretty quickly. Public places that seem to be affecting a lot of young people at once seem like a good place to start.”
Larraine Roulston writes the Pee Wee at Castle Compost adventure series. Visit www.castlecompost.co