There are multiple sources of lead in the environment that threaten the developing minds and capacities of young children. The primary source of lead exposure for children in Wisconsin is lead in paint or varnish in the house dust and lead-contaminated soil. The effects of lead depend on both the level and the duration of lead exposure.
Young children are most vulnerable to lead and its lasting effects. Adults are vulnerable as well, especially if their occupation exposes them to lead, and they may bring this lead home and expose their children. Lead in the water and the air and other products, such as traditional home remedies and cosmetics, can contribute to a child's lead exposure.
Sources of Lead Exposure
Information on this page has been organized into three categories. Please choose one of the following tabs.
In Paint and Other Coatings
Exposure to lead-based paint (LBP) is the major source of lead poisoning for children in Wisconsin. When lead paint is intact, it is unlikely to cause exposure. The risk of exposure increases as the paint breaks down into smaller particles. The smaller the particles, the more easily they are dispersed, become accessible to children, and are absorbed by the body. If lead paint is allowed to deteriorate due to normal wear (moisture damage, temperature changes, friction, or impact), or when paint or varnish are deliberately disturbed by renovation activity, house dust and soil become contaminated. The resulting lead-tainted dust enters a child’s body through normal hand-to-mouth activity.
Routes of Exposure
- The most common route of exposure is from the lead dust created by deteriorating LBP or renovation activities which can stick to fingers, toys, soil, food, and other accessible surfaces. Young children are then likely to ingest the lead dust through normal hand-to-mouth activity.
- Another route of lead exposure is when children chew on things, such as windows and window sills, doors and door frames, stairs, railings and banisters, porches, fences, and/or furniture.
- Even surfaces that are covered with a new layer of paint, can be a source of exposure is they are a friction surface or consistently rub together, exposing underlying layers of LBP.
- Lead in varnish is typically found on floors, stairs, doors, windows and wood trim and even old baby cribs. Even if intact if a child chews on varnished surfaces, the child can ingest lead.
Regulation for Disturbing LPB and Varnish
LBP or varnish that is intact, undisturbed, and inaccessible to young children may not pose a lead hazard and should be left alone. If it is going to be disturbed, by federal and state law the person doing the work must be a certified lead-safe renovation contractor (PDF, 1.38 MB).
Reliable Sources of Information on Lead in Paint and Other Coatings
In Soil, Air and Water
Lead has made its way into the soil around homes and neighborhoods through several different routes:
- Leaded gasoline
- Environmental emissions
Lead is naturally occurring, and can be found in high concentrations in some areas. Yards and playgrounds can become contaminated when exterior lead-based paint from houses or buildings flakes or peels and gets into the soil. Lead from gasoline or factory emissions may have penetrated the soil. Lead in soil can be ingested as a result of hand-to-mouth activity that is common for young children. Lead can also be ingested by eating vegetables that may have taken up lead from soil in the garden. Lead is soil can be tracked into your house thereby spreading the contamination.
The only way to know if your soil has lead it to have it tested. This is especially important if you are planning to plant a garden in that soil. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) defines soil lead hazard as 400 parts per million (ppm) in play areas and a 1,200 ppm average for bare soil in the rest of the yard.
How Can I Reduce My Family’s Exposure to Lead in Soil?
There are several ways to prevent or reduce exposure to lead in soils. Homeowners will need to identify which method(s) work best for their homes:
- Locate play areas and gardens away from the drip zone of your house or garage
- Maintain healthy lawns without open bare soil areas
- Hardy shrubs can be planted around the house to keep children out of the drip zone
- Mulch, wood chips, or gravel can be used as covering over soil in the drip zone
- Walkways should consist of stepping stones, cement, or gravel to prevent tracking soil inside
- A thin layer of the most heavily contaminated soils (lead over 5,000 ppm) may need to be removed and taken to a landfill.
In cases where a lot of paint is visible in the bare soil and yard, consider the following:
- Rake up and dispose all visible chips
- Mow the grass/soil with a thatching blade and collection bag; dispose waste
- Use a HEPA vacuum to collect visible chips from the surface before other treatment options
- Install fencing that separates play areas from buildings with lead paint. This can aid as a temporary solution.
Reliable Sources of Information on Lead in Soil
If your soil has lead, or if you are not sure, please view the publication, Human Health Hazards: Lead in soil from exterior lead paint P-45015 (PDF, 165 KB) to get advice.
EPA - Lead in Soil
Good air quality is important to your health and the environment. In this section two different types in lead in air are discussed: lead in the air in your home and general lead in air pollution.
Sources of Lead in the Air in Your Home
Lead can be in the air in your home through a variety of activities:
- Settled lead dust in a home can re-enter the air when the home is vacuumed or swept.
- Movement of lead dust such as when wind blows through a window or when people walk through a room.
- Using a torch to strip lead paint from a surface.
- Lead in soil may also be inhaled if re-suspended in the air
For these reasons, it is recommended that you:
- Mop floors that may have lead tainted dust or use a vacuum with a special air filter called a HEPA filter.
- Clean window wells of any lead dust using damp paper towels and grease-cutting soap.
- Never use an open flame to burn off lead-based paint or varnish.
- Cover bare patches of soil with mulch or sturdy plants such as shrubs.
Lead Sources of Air Pollution
Lead is the most abundant toxic heavy metal. Where lead in air is highly concentrated, the length of time of exposure and your own health conditions are all factors in how lead in air pollution affects your health. Industrial sources of lead emissions include:
- Waste oil and solid waste incineration;
- Iron and steel production;
- Lead smelting; and
- Battery and lead alkyl manufacturing.
The major sources of lead emissions have historically been from fuels in cars and trucks and industrial sources. As a result of regulatory efforts to remove lead from gasoline, emissions of lead from the transportation sector dramatically declined by 95 percent between 1980 and 1999. Levels of lead in the air decreased by 94 percent between 1980 and 1999. Today, the major sources of lead emissions are lead smelters, ore and metals processing facilities and piston-engine aircraft operating on leaded aviation gasoline.
The primary, health-based standard for lead is 0.15 micrograms per cubic liter (μg/m3). All counties in Wisconsin meet these standards.
On December 14, 2010, the U.S. EPA revised the ambient monitoring requirements for measuring lead in the air. These amendments expand the nation's lead monitoring network to better assess compliance with the 2008 revised standard for lead.
Reliable Sources of Information on Lead in Air
Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources - Air Pollutants and Standards
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has a national database that shows you what types of lead sources make up the total amount of lead in the air.
EPA - Lead Air Pollution
Lead is typically not found in drinking water. However, lead can enter drinking water through corrosion of plumbing materials. Where the water has high acidity or low mineral content that corrodes pipes and fixtures, lead is likely to be leached from the lead pipe. The EPA estimates that drinking water accounts for 10-20 percent of human exposure to lead. Risk from lead-contaminated drinking water will vary, depending on the individual. For example, infants who drink formula made with lead-contaminated water may be at higher risk because of the large volume of water they consume relative to their body size.
Homes built before 1986 are more likely to have lead pipes, fixtures and solder. Beginning January 2014, changes to the Safe Drinking Water Act reduced the maximum allowable lead content of pipes, pipe fittings, plumbing fittings, and fixtures from 8 percent to 0.25 percent.
The only way to find out if a home has high levels of lead in the drinking water is to test the water. Lead in water must be below 15 parts per billion according to EPA standards.
There are several things that you can do to reduce ingestion of lead from drinking water:
- Do not drink, cook, or make baby formula with water from the hot water tap.
- Consider purchasing a filter certified for lead removal, or purchase bottled water.
- Replace the plumbing or service line, or lead-containing faucets.
NOTE: Boiling the water will not reduce the amount of lead; it will concentrate the lead in water.
NOTE: Bathing is not a problem, unless the one bathing is ingesting the water; lead does not enter the body through your skin.
Reliable Sources of Information on Lead in Water
Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources - Drinking Water Quality
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention - Lead and Water
Environmental Protection Agency - Drinking Water Requirements
Reliable Sources of Information on Lead in Products
Toys/ Products for Children
The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission has a searchable database on toys and other children's products that were found to contain unsafe levels of lead.
- Guidance on testing toys and other products (PDF, 588 KB) suspected to contain lead and exposure from lead in toys (PDF, 570 KB) is provided in fact sheets from the National Center for Healthy Housing.
- For more information on lead in toys for children, visit the Environmental Protection Agency website.
- Warning: Sindoor Contains Lead - A product called "SINDOOR" is often added to food as a food coloring. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued an alert on Dec. 17, 2007, warning consumers not to use the Swad brand Sindoor product because testing conducted by the Illinois Department of Public Health indicated this product contained very high levels of lead, sometimes as high as 87%.
- Toxic Treats (poster in English or in Spanish) - California and U.S. health officials have detected dangerous levels of lead in 112 distinct brands of candy – most of them made in Mexico. One in four candy and wrapper samples have tested high since 1993, records show.
Cornell Chronicle: Christmas lights pose lead threat: A Cornell University article discussing the results of study done on Christmas light sets. [November 24, 2008]
Lead Paint and Vermont’s Essential Maintenance Practices (PDF, 6.8 MB): Tips from the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board to follow when using porcelain and ceramic glazed products and home maintenance practices.