There are many sources of lead in the environment that can harm people’s health. Children are most at risk for exposure to lead-based paint found in homes and child care centers built before 1978. Adults can be harmed by lead poisoning, too—most commonly in the workplace. Plus, they can unknowingly bring lead dust home with them and expose their children.
The primary source of lead exposure in Wisconsin is lead in paint or varnish in household dust. Yet it can also be found in the soil and air from car, plane, and factory emissions—and it’s been found in water in some parts of the state.
Less commonly in Wisconsin, lead has been found in other products, such as home remedies, makeup, and certain spices. Learn more about less common sources of lead.
Learn about the sources of lead exposure below.
Exposure to lead-based paint is the main source of lead poisoning in Wisconsin. Although lead was banned from paint used on the interiors and exteriors of homes in 1978, homes built before 1978 can still have lead-based paint under layers of newer paint.
The risk of exposure to lead-based paint increases when it breaks down into smaller particles. The smaller the particles, like lead dust, the more easily they can move around and be absorbed by the body.
This breaking down of lead-based paint most commonly occurs when it’s allowed to deteriorate over time, or when it’s deliberately disturbed during a renovation project.
Sources of exposure
- The most common way children are exposed to lead dust is when lead-based paint deteriorates or is deliberately disturbed during a renovation. The dust can stick to children’s fingers, toys, soil, food, and other surfaces.
- Another way exposure occurs is when children chew on things, such as:
- Door frames
- Window sills
- Even surfaces covered by a new layer of paint can be a source of exposure when underlying layers of lead-based paint break through.
- Children can also be exposed to lead dust through varnish if they chew things like floors, stairs, doors, windows, wood trim, and old baby cribs.
Reducing your risk
Lead-based paint that is intact, undisturbed, and inaccessible to young children may not pose a lead hazard and should be left alone. If it’s going to be disturbed during a renovation project, the person doing the work must be a certified lead-safe renovation contractor, according to Wisconsin’s Lead-Safe Renovation Rule. If you live in a home built before 1978, you can hire a certified lead-safe renovation company.
You may be eligible for funding to fix your lead hazard.
People can ingest the lead in soil when they put their hands to their mouths or eat vegetables from a garden with soil contaminated by lead. Lead in soil also may be inhaled if it’s re-suspended in the air or tracked into your house.
The only way to know if your soil is contaminated with lead is to test it. This is especially important if you’re planning to plant a garden. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) defines a soil lead hazard as 400 parts per million (ppm) in play areas and 1,200 ppm average for bare soil in the rest of the yard.
For more information, view Human Health Hazards: Lead in soil from exterior lead paint, P-45015 (PDF).
Sources of exposure
Lead makes its way into the soil around homes through:
- Environmental emissions
- Leaded gasoline
Lead is naturally occurring and can be found in high concentrations in certain areas. In addition, soil, yards, and playgrounds can become contaminated when exterior lead-based paint from houses or buildings flake and peel, getting into the soil. Lead from gasoline or factory emissions can also get into the soil.
Reducing your risk
There are several ways to prevent or reduce your exposure to lead found in the soil. Here are a few:
- Construct walkways out of stepping stones, cement, or gravel to prevent people from tracking soil into the house.
- Keep play areas and gardens at least 3 feet away from the house and garage because this area usually has more lead in it than the rest of the yard.
- Maintain a healthy lawn without open areas of bare soil.
- Plant hardy shrubs around the house to keep children out of the dripline.
- Remove a thin layer of the most heavily contaminated soils (lead over 5,000 ppm) and take to a landfill.
- Use mulch, wood chips, or gravel to cover soil in the dripline.
If there is a lot of visible paint in the bare soil and yard, consider:
- Installing a fence that separates play areas from buildings with lead paint as a temporary solution.
- Mowing the grass or soil with a thatching blade and collection bag and getting rid of waste.
- Raking up and disposing of all visible chips.
- Using a high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) vacuum to collect visible chips from the surface before employing other treatment options.
Lead in the air is harmful because you can breathe it in. There are two main types of lead in the air: lead in the air of your home and lead in air pollution.
Sources of lead in the air of your home
- Deteriorating old lead paint on surfaces, especially ones that get moved, bumped, or rubbed (such as window frames or stairs).
- Settled lead dust that re-enters the air during vacuuming or sweeping.
- Stripped lead paint removed from a surface with a torch.
- The movement of lead dust, caused by wind blowing through a window or people walking into a room.
- Bringing in lead-contaminated dust on clothes from a job site.
- Home repair activities.
- Tracking lead-contaminated soil in from outside.
Reducing your risk
Reduce your risk of exposure to lead in the air of your home by:
- Cleaning window wells with damp paper towels and grease-cutting soap.
- Covering bare patches of soil with mulch or sturdy shrubs.
- Mopping floors or cleaning them with a HEPA vacuum.
- Never using an open flame to burn off lead-based paint or varnish.
- Never using power tools, such as a power sander or washer, to remove chipped and peeling paint.
Sources of lead in air pollution
- Battery and lead alkyl manufacturing
- Iron and steel production
- Lead smelting
- Waste oil and solid waste incineration
The main sources of lead emissions have historically been gasoline from cars and factories. Between 1990 and 1999, regulatory efforts to remove lead from gas caused lead emissions from the transportation sector to drop by 95%—and levels of lead in the air to drop by 94%.
Today, the major sources of lead emissions are:
- Lead smelters.
- Ore and metals processing facilities.
- Piston-engine aircraft that run on leaded aviation gas.
The primary, health-based standard for lead in the air is 0.15 micrograms per cubic liter (µg/m3). All counties in Wisconsin meet this standard.
In 2010, the EPA revised the requirements for measuring lead in the air. This revision expanded the country’s lead monitoring network to better comply with the 2008 revised lead standard.
- Air pollutants and standards from the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources
- Sources, standards, and industry emissions limits for lead in the air from the EPA
- Lead air pollution from the EPA
Lead is typically not found in source drinking water. However, it can enter drinking water through corrosion in plumbing materials, especially in places of high acidity or low mineral content. The EPA estimates that drinking water accounts for 10-20% of lead exposure cases.
Risk from lead-contaminated water varies depending on the person. Pregnant women and babies who drink formula are at a higher risk for exposure to lead in drinking water, for example.
Sources of exposure
Homes built before 1968 are more likely to have lead pipes, fixtures, and solder. Beginning in January 2014, changes to the Safe Drinking Water Act reduced the maximum amount of lead content allowed in 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.
Reducing your risk
The only way to find out if a home has high levels of lead in the drinking water is to test the water. If it hasn’t been tested, there are several things you can do to reduce how much lead you ingest from drinking water, including:
- Buying a filter certified for lead removal. Use the EPA’s A Consumer Tool for Identifying Point of Use (POU) Drinking Water Filters Certified to Reduce Lead (PDF).
- Cleaning your aerator (the faucet’s screen) regularly to remove sediment, debris, or lead particles that may have collected there.
- Flushing your plumbing before using cold tap water if the water hasn’t been used for hours.
- Learning if you have a lead service line or plumbing materials, such as lead-containing faucets, and replacing if necessary. Watch this video to learn how to test plumbing materials in your home.
- Using only cold water for drinking, cooking, or making formula for a baby. Boiling will not reduce or remove lead, it will concentrate it in the water.
Bathing is not typically a problem because lead doesn’t enter the body through the skin. The only way it can be dangerous is if you swallow bath water.
- Lead in water from the Wisconsin Department of Health Services
- Drinking water and lead from the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources
- Lead in drinking water from the CDC’s (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s) Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention
- Drinking water requirements from the EPA
- An online step-by-step guide from the EPA to help people identify lead pipes (service lines) in their homes