The addition of lead to petrol, starting in the 1920s, has been called ‘The Mistake of the 20th Century’. But what's the big problem with lead? We asked Environmental Scientist and Eco-Lifestyle Coach Una Phelan to give us the educational low down.
The Big Problem with Lead
Lead (Pb) is a toxic heavy metal found naturally in the ground. It has been described as the most common environmental contaminant in the world. There is no known safe level of lead and even low levels are believed harmful, resulting in serious health, learning and behavioural repercussions. Lead can significantly impact on children’s IQ and lead to the development of osteoporosis later in life. Children and pregnant women are especially vulnerable.
It’s well known that the famous composer Beethoven went deaf, dying at the early age 56. It wasn’t until about 200 years after his death in the 2000’s that scientists finally found a reasonable answer. Much scientific analysis and testing of his skull and hair revealed he had extremely high levels of lead in his body. As well as affecting hearing, high lead levels are also associated with early death. In the USA, researchers have estimated that 30 million Americans or 10% of the population will die a premature death from heart attack or stroke due to exposure to lead. Applying the same numbers, this equates to the premature death of 2 million Australians.
Put shortly, lead is something we should avoid exposure to and which we do not want in our own homes.
So what are the sources of Lead in the home?
In addition to food, paint and dust are the most common sources of lead in the home.
Lead in our domestic water is not unusual. It was used extensively in water pipes before 1930; as lead solder used in copper pipes before 1989. It’s still found in PVC as well as lead flashing on our roofs, and small amounts in the brass fittings on our taps.
Chlorinated water increases the leaching of the lead into the water in your home. As your local water authority is only responsible for the water pipes terminating at your water meter, lead will not usually show up in any of their water quality tests. You need to test the water coming out of your kitchen taps.
Lead paint was used extensively in Australian homes before 1978. Lead paint levels were as high as 50% and in 1997 the content was reduced to 0.1%. Yet today these paints are sold as ‘lead free’.
Even though leaded petrol was banned in Australia about twenty years ago the lead dust hangs around for decades, polluting our soil and air. So planting garden vegetables on a busy front verge may not be a great idea unless you replace all the soil.
Lead dust settles inside our homes, especially close to the front door where you bring it in on your shoes from outside. Carpets are a particularly good material for capturing dust. Living close to busy roads and petrol stations increases your risk of lead exposure too.
So how can you test for lead in your home?
The only way to find out where you are being exposed to lead in your home or office is to do some testing.
Comprehensive lead test kits are available from The Lead Group. Kits can be used to sample paint, toys, ceramics, jewellery, water and dust.
You can also buy affordable test kits from hardware stores such as Bunnings. These kits will simply tell you whether or not lead is present.
What are some tips to reduce your exposure to lead in the home?
Below are some tips on how to test for lead and reduce your exposure at home:
· Eat organic food.
· Take off your shoes before coming inside the home.
· Don’t renovate or remove paint from older homes unless you have had it tested for lead.
· If you really want to remove lead paint follow the safe lead painting guidelines issued by the Commonwealth Department of the Environment
· Use a vacuum cleaner with a HEPA filter.
· Clean your home using damp micro-fibre cloths.
· Install a good water filter.
· Avoid brass faucet fittings.
Una Phelan is an Environmental Scientist and Eco-Lifestyle Coach. She established Econscious Living after finding that making small changes in her own living environment resulted in massive changes to the health and wellbeing of her family. She has degrees in Natural Science and Environmental Science. She provides eco-lifestyle advice and services, and blogs at www.econsciousliving.com. She also shares plenty of information on Instagram.
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Certificate in Environmental Health: Australasian College of Nutritional and Environmental Medicine ACNEM 2016
Geobiology training in Electronic Pollution/EMF and Geopathic stress with Geovital – Academy for Radiation Protection and Environmental Medicine
MSc Applied Environmental Science: Queens’ University of Belfast 1996
BA Natural Science: Trinity College Dublin, Ireland 1995