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Testing For Lead Around The House

With recent reports that some toys made in China contain lead paint, it is also timely for homeowners and renters, particularly those with small children, to test their homes for lead hazards.

According to Richard Wiles, the executive director of the Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit research and advocacy organization in Washington, high levels of lead in children 6 and under have been linked to nervous-system damage and learning problems. And the primary source of lead in the home is old paint.

“Windows, doors and peeling paint are the primary problem areas,” Mr. Wiles said, even though lead has been banned from paint made for residential use since 1978. He explained that when lead paint has been painted over, peeling or friction from opening and closing a door or window can produce chips and dust containing lead.

Another potential source of lead is drinking water. “If you live in an older city, there’s a chance lead pipes are used in the delivery system,” Mr. Wiles said. “Most of the time the lead levels are not objectionably high, but the water being delivered to your house may not be the same as the water coming out of your tap.”

He said that lead can leach into tap water from lead pipes in the house, from lead-based solder and from brass fittings and faucets. Other potential sources of lead are pottery and crystal, and lead can also be present in the soil outside.

Wendy Cleland-Hamnett, the deputy director of the Environmental Protectional Agency’s Office of Pollution Prevention and Toxics, said that if a family with children 6 and younger is living in a house built before 1978, the best thing to do is to have some testing done by a certified inspector or certified risk assessor. They can be found by calling the National Lead Information Center at (800) 424-5323 or online at

For the basic test, the inspector will check all painted surfaces, including outside walls, for lead paint. A more comprehensive risk assessment will test all painted surfaces as well as samples of dust on floors and soil around the house. The cost varies widely, depending on the location and size of the house where the test is performed.

Homeowners can also test for lead themselves. “There are a number of kits available that provide good information,” said Jeff Gordon, a researcher at the Building Research Council of the University of Illinois in Urbana. With some kits, a paint chip, dust or soil sample is sent to a lab for analysis. (A list of federally certified labs is available at; search for “lead labs.”)

Dave Lachance, president of Abotex, a Grand Bend, Ontario, company that makes Lead Inspector home test kits, says that they can be used to check for lead on painted surfaces, and in crystal, pottery, soil and water, without having to send samples to a lab. (The kits range from about $13, for 8 tests, to $50, for 100 tests.)

Tildy La Farge, a spokeswoman for Consumer Reports, said public water suppliers are required to provide a consumer confidence report every year. The reports should be available on the municipality’s Web site.