Testing for lead

Worried what toxic hazards might lurk in your home? Thanks to some powerful technology, one family got the chance to find out

Bruce and Shelley Lensmith* perfectly timed the purchase of their new home with their second baby’s arrival. “I gave birth the day after we got the keys,” Shelley says with a laugh. That was in the summer of 2006, and today the Lensmith clan has grown to five. Their two-storey house on a leafy street in Toronto’s Leaside neighbourhood is alive with the sights and sounds of Emily, five, Lauren, three, and one-year-old Jenna.

The house has all the charm you’d expect from one built in 1947: hardwood floors, plaster walls and ceilings, original wood trim, and a kitchen that walks out to a deck in a long, narrow backyard. But the Lensmiths suspect that the house has a few not-so-charming features, including lead paint on the trim and around the windows. And once they started thinking about lead, Bruce and Shelley began to wonder if it might be lurking in their girls’ toys: They’ve read about the recalls from major toy makers such as Fisher-Price and Mattel, not to mention the dollar-store junk that every parent reluctantly brings home. They’re aware that exposure to even small amounts of lead can damage a child’s developing brain and nervous system, leading to cognitive and behavioural problems.

That’s why they’ve allowed Today’s Parent into their home, along with Kathleen Cooper, a senior researcher with the Canadian Environmental Law Association, and Colin Bradford, a licensed specialist in a technique called X-ray fluorescence (see Analyze this). Armed with years of experience and some cool technology, Bradford and Cooper thoroughly analyze the Lensmiths’ postwar-era home in search of lead and other dangerous contaminants. As it turns out, the house has some predictable hazards, plus a few surprises.

The scanner Bradford uses to conduct his tests resembles the hand-held price guns used by grocery clerks. The tool uses cutting-edge technology that, until recently, was available only in laboratories and could not be set up on a family’s dining room table as it is now. By focusing a tiny X-ray on any object, the scanner can detect not just lead, but a range of elements. Place a squeaky toy or a paint chip in front of the X-ray and, within seconds, Bradford’s laptop screen is filled with a list of elements the item is made from, along with their concentrations in parts per million (ppm). It’s not as accurate as a rigorous lab test, Bradford stresses, but it’s a valuable first step in identifying potential hazards that could put the kids’ — and parents’ — health at risk.

*Names changed by request.

Toys

One of Bruce Lensmith’s main concerns is a plastic beaded necklace covered in silver paint, which he thought may have made his middle daughter dramatically ill. “Lauren had been sucking on it and, within an hour, she broke out in hives over much of her body,” he explains. A trip to the doctor revealed that the problem had actually been a delayed reaction to penicillin, but the Lensmiths still want the toy checked out. It turns out to be lead-free. In fact, all of the kids’ favourites pass — including a wooden frog, a stuffed toy, a Diego figure and a plastic giraffe — saving the toys from the garbage bin and the Lensmiths from the wrath of their girls.

“We’ve had a couple of years of toy recalls and greater awareness,” Cooper says, “so now we’re finding high lead content in only a small number of toys.” Unfortunately, there’s no easy way for parents to identify the culprits without sophisticated technology. “The Lensmiths have mostly high-quality, expensive toys,” says Cooper, “and you would think those would be less likely to contain lead, but that’s inconsistent. Some of the dollar-store stuff contains nothing dangerous, whereas a lot of the recalls in recent years were on very mainstream items.” (Editor’s note: All toys recommended for babies, toddlers and preschoolers in the Today’s Parent Toy Guide, starting on p. 50, are tested at the McMaster University Occupational and Environmental Health Laboratory in Hamilton to rule out lead content.)

Jewellery

After giving the toys a clean bill of health, Bradford moves on to Shelley’s jewellery box. While the gold and silver in expensive rings, necklaces and bracelets pose no health risk, costume jewellery may contain significant amounts of lead, which comes as a surprise to Shelley. “I didn’t have any concerns about jewellery,” she admits. First up is a pendant that baby Jenna likes to put in her mouth. That one is clean, but the analyzer reveals that two bracelets contain more than one percent lead. “I rarely wear jewellery, but I had recently started wearing those bracelets again,” says Shelley. “They were never where the children might get them, but I’m quite sure I won’t be wearing them again.”

One of the bracelets was bought in Scotland, but the other came from Vancouver. If you’re surprised that jewellery on Canadian store shelves can contain lead, you’re not alone. Cooper says that the law is out of date: Only jewellery specifically intended for kids is subject to the Hazardous Products Act. “That’s a ridiculously unworkable distinction,” Cooper says. “Inexpensive jewellery can easily be incorporated into a dress-up box for kids. Or a woman could be wearing it and the baby can just grab it and suck on it. Even if a child just plays with it and gets it on his hands, that’s an exposure source.”

Dust

Another major source of kids’ exposure to lead and other contaminants is household dust. So Cooper asks the Lensmiths to retrieve the vacuum bag and some dryer lint for analysis. She’s pleasantly surprised that neither sets off the alarm, and commends the Lensmiths for their dust-busting. “The house does not have a lot of dust, probably because it’s set up to be easy to clean: bare floors with area rugs, rather than lots of carpet. That’s good when you’ve got babies crawling around.”

Why would dust be a major source of lead exposure? The reason is that any object containing lead gradually breaks down, releasing tiny particles that end up on the floor, accumulating in dust bunnies or getting trapped in carpets. Paint is one source of this gradual buildup, but others are more unexpected. Cooper asks the Lensmiths to fetch some electrical cords, and Bruce returns with one from the girls’ radio and another from the baby monitor. The former turns out to contain lead at 10,000 ppm (one percent), which is lower than the two to five percent that Cooper has seen in other cords, but it’s still a source of lead in household dust. (Bradford says he’s tested strings of Christmas tree lights that were “loaded with lead.”) Cooper explains that electrical cords are often insulated with polyvinyl chloride (PVC), which includes lead as a flame retardant.

Focusing on dust is an effective way to reduce the risk in your home, Cooper says. She suggests using a vacuum or wet mop, since dry dusting often just pushes the stuff around. She also encourages families to store the dustpan, brooms and mops away from food containers or cloth shopping bags. Vacuuming once a week — twice if you have a crawling child — is worth the effort. To make it easier, choose hardwood, laminate, tile or vinyl flooring, rather than carpet, whenever possible. Finally, make sure kids and adults take off their shoes at the door. Using washable mats inside the door also greatly reduces the level of dirt and dust tracked in.

Paint

Cooper and Bradford wrap up the testing by sampling paint at several spots inside and outside the house. Fortunately, there’s good news in the kids’ rooms: no significant lead levels anywhere, including on Jenna’s crib, which shows the teeth marks of present and past occupants. The only worry inside the house is some chipping paint on the trim: One sample from the master bedroom registers 10,000 to 16,000 ppm (one to 1.6 percent). Since the maximum level allowed in paints today is 600 ppm, it’s clear there’s older paint peeking out from under the chipped pieces.

This is easily fixed, Cooper says. “You just want to make sure the chips are not available for kids to pick at.” In most cases, carefully scraping off the loose pieces, covering the area with a good primer (that doesn’t require sanding) and finishing with a top coat will seal it right up. “Often it’s best to simply cover it with another layer of latex paint. Stripping old wood can be very dangerous if you don’t do it properly. A lot of contractors won’t even do it.” A pricier solution is to remove and replace the trim or baseboards altogether. “Just be careful to keep the dust to a minimum,” Cooper warns.

It’s only when the testing team steps outside that they get a genuinely alarming result. Along the side of the Lensmiths’ garage, the paint is coming off in big flakes, and when Bradford scans a piece it reads five to 15 percent lead. “These levels are really high,” Cooper says, “and the paint is so accessible to the kids.” Almost on cue, a curious Lauren ambles over and breaks off a chip with her tiny hand.

“I’m just shocked,” Bruce says. “When we moved in, the garage was flawless on the outside. We knew the previous owner had repainted inside the house, and we figured he repainted the garage as well. Maybe he used cheap interior latex on the garage to save time or money.” It’s impossible to know exactly what is to blame here: Anyone painting a house in 2006 would be using a paint with very low levels of lead. The lead is more likely a remnant of much older paint jobs, and the most recent coat clearly failed to cover it up.

To fix the problem, Cooper suggests donning a dust mask (available at hardware stores) and carefully removing the largest chips with a scraper, laying a tarp along the base of the garage to catch the pieces as they fall. If the surface is not too rough, it can be covered with a high-quality primer and a top coat of exterior-grade latex paint. Sanding is a no-no: That’s the quickest way to make sure lead dust gets scattered everywhere. An even better — though more expensive — option is covering the whole garage with siding.

Overall, the Lensmiths are doing everything right, and the problems they face are entirely what one would expect in a house that’s more than 60 years old. As long as they take some simple steps — tossing out a couple of pieces of jewellery and repairing peeling paint — they shouldn’t have to worry that their girls will be exposed to any significant sources of lead. Still, Shelley admits that the testing process opened her eyes to the potential hazards of older homes. “I’m glad I’m not going to be pregnant in this house again.”

Analyze this

The technology we used in the Lensmiths’ home is called X-ray fluorescence, or XRF. It’s been available in laboratories for many years, but it only became portable in 2002. Our technical specialist, Colin Bradford, used a Niton hand-held analyzer manufactured by Thermo Scientific. The analyzers cost about $45,000, and operators in Canada need to be trained and licensed; while the device is safe when used properly, it does emit a potentially dangerous amount of radiation.

XRF analysis works by emitting X-rays into an object and measuring what bounces back. Because every element responds differently to the X-rays, the analyzer can determine whether the sample contains lead, as well as a host of other elements, including mercury, cadmium, arsenic and bromine. It can also estimate the concentrations, although it is not nearly as accurate as tests done in a lab using other instruments in addition to XRF.

Many manufacturers use XRF as part of their quality control, but it is unrealistically expensive for most parents or homeowners to hire a company to perform this kind of analysis. For information, contact Colin Bradford at cbradford17@gmail.com.

Where to learn more

Healthyenvironmentforkids.ca, the website of the Canadian Partnership for Children’s Health and Environment, has fact sheets on lead in paint, toxic toys, safe renovations and related topics.

Health Canada has information on the health effects of lead exposure; go to hc-sc.gc.ca/index-eng.php and type “lead and human health” in the search box.

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