There are multiple sources of lead in the environment that can threaten the health of children and adults. If their occupation exposes them to lead, adults may be vulnerable as well, and they may bring this lead home and expose their children.
The primary source of lead exposure in Wisconsin is lead in paint or varnish in household dust. Lead can also be found in soil and air from vehicle, airplane and factory emissions. Lead has been found in water in some places in Wisconsin in the drinking water supply.
NOTE: There have been a few cases in Wisconsin where lead has been found in other products, such as traditional home remedies, cosmetics, and spices. These can contribute to a child's lead exposure. Learn more about these less common sources of lead.
Sources of Lead Exposure
Information on this page has been organized into three categories. Please choose one of the following tabs.
In Paint and Coatings
Exposure to lead-based paint is the major source of lead poisoning in Wisconsin. Lead was banned from paint for inside and outside use in homes in 1978. Homes built before 1978 can still have lead-based paint in the layers under the surface paint.
When lead paint or other residential coatings are intact, they are unlikely to cause exposure. The risk of exposure increases as it breaks down into smaller particles. The smaller the particles, the more easily they are dispersed, become accessible, 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, household dust and soil can become contaminated.
Routes of exposure
- The most common route of exposure is from the lead dust created by deteriorating lead-based paint or renovation activities that can stick to fingers, toys, soil, food, and other accessible surfaces. Young children are then likely to swallow 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 if they are a friction surface or consistently rub together, exposing underlying layers of lead-based paint.
- Lead in varnish is typically found on floors, stairs, doors, windows and wood trim, and even old baby cribs. Even if a varnish surface is intact, the child can swallow some lead by chewing on the varnished surface.
Disturbing lead-based paint and varnish in homes is regulated
If paint or other coatings containing lead are going to be disturbed, Wisconsin citizens must follow the Lead-Safe Renovation Rule. Federal and state laws mandate that the person doing the work must be a certified lead-safe renovation contractor. If you live in a home built before 1978, you can hire a Wisconsin certified lead-safe renovation company.
There are possible sources of funding to remove lead hazards in Wisconsin.
Reliable sources of information on lead in paint and other residential coatings
In Soil and Air
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 swallowed as a result of hand-to-mouth activity that is common for young children. Lead can also be swallowed by eating vegetables that may have taken up lead from soil in the garden. Lead in soil can be tracked into your house, thereby spreading the contamination.
The only way to know if your soil has lead is 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 soil. Homeowners will need to identify which method(s) work best for their homes:
- Play areas and gardens should be located away from the drip zone of the house or garage.
- Healthy lawns should be maintained 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 of all visible chips.
- Mow the grass/soil with a thatching blade and collection bag; dispose waste.
- Use a HEPA (high efficiency particulate air) 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) to get advice.
EPA: Lead in Soil
Good air quality is important to your health and the environment. In this section, two different types of 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 enter 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 (high efficiency particulate air) 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.
- Never use power tools, such as a power sander or power washer, to remove chipping and peeling paint.
- Cover bare patches of soil with mulch or sturdy plants such as shrubs.
Sources of lead in air pollution
Lead is the most abundant toxic heavy metal. Where lead in air is highly concentrated, the duration 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.
- 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% between 1980 and 1999. Levels of lead in the air decreased by 94% 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 EPA has a national database that shows you what types of lead sources make up the total amount of lead in the air. This EPA webpage offers more information on sources of lead in air, national standards for lead in air, and emissions limits for lead from industries.
EPA: Lead Air Pollution[tabs]
Lead in water usually comes from lead entering 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.
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% to 0.25%.
Lead in water must be below 15 parts per billion according to EPA standards.
What's my risk?
The EPA estimates that drinking water accounts for 10–20% of human exposure to lead. Risk from lead-contaminated drinking water will vary, depending on the individual. Pregnant women and infants who drink formula are at higher risk for exposure to lead in drinking water. Formula-fed infants consume a large amount of water relative to their body size.
What can I do to reduce my risk?
There are several things that you can do to reduce the intake of lead from drinking water:
- Learn if you have a lead service line or plumbing materials, such as lead-containing faucets. The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) has best management practices for lead in drinking water Also, you can learn about plumbing materials in your home by watching this brief Department of Health Services (DHS) video: How to Assess for Lead in a Plumbing System in and Older Home.
- Flush your plumbing before using cold tap water if the water has not been used for hours.
- Use only cold water drinking, cooking, or making baby formula.
- Consider purchasing a filter certified for lead removal. EPA has a tool to assist you in finding a certified filter: Consumer Tool for Identifying Drinking Water Filters Certified to Reduce Lead (PDF).
- Clean your aerator (also known as the faucet's screen) regularly to remove any sediment, debris, or lead particles that may have collected there.
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 swallowing the water; lead does not enter the body through the skin.
Reliable sources of information on lead in water
Wisconsin DNR: Drinking Water and Lead
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Lead and Water