Follow, Don't Lead

Every now and then, somebody asks if my home-inspection company tests for lead paint in houses. The answer is, no, we don't. We might do it one of these days, but for now, it's not on the menu of services.

People started asking about lead paint testing about four years ago, soon after the federal government started requiring every seller, landlord, and real-estate agent to warn potential buyers of the lead paint peril in pre-1978 houses. The peril, simply stated, is brain damage. The brain damage happens if a person eats or inhales enough lead. Children are particularly susceptible to lead poisoning. Women of child-bearing age and inclination need to stay away from lead, because lead can cross the placenta and damage a developing fetus.

Ever since late 1996, people who negotiate to buy a pre-1978 house automatically get a lead-paint disclosure form. Why pre-1978 houses? Well, that's because lead paint was essentially banned in 1978. On the disclosure form, the seller declares that he either 1. has knowledge of lead paint in the house, or 2. has no knowledge of lead paint in the house. Of course, any seller with a thimbleful of brains says he has no knowledge of lead paint.

I live in a 1914 house, which is almost surely full of lead paint. But I can truthfully say that I have no knowledge of it. I've never had my house tested for lead paint, and I probably never will. Here's why: 1. The inexpensive swab tests are unreliable. 2. The more expensive X-ray tests ($300 to $500) will find lead paint, but I'd rather assume that the lead is there and spend my money on just about anything else. 3. There are lots of ways to get lead into a person's blood, including soil polluted by old leaded gasoline, an old lead water pipe, solder used in newer copper pipe, imported dishes and cups, and even some lead-laden Gymboree children's umbrellas, which were recalled by the CPSC back in 1997. 4. For less than 50 bucks, anybody can get his blood tested for lead. 5. Lead is like dog crap: If you don't eat it, it won't hurt you.

Old-house renovators were aware of the lead-paint hazard back in the 1970s. In those days, before the stern government warnings and recalls, renovators followed these common-sense guidelines:

Assume that there's lead in the paint.

When you're doing demolition work or sanding in an old house, use plastic sheeting and duct tape to "drape and tape" the openings to the work area. Clean up the work area-vacuum, damp-mop-at the end of every day.

Wear a respirator. When you're tearing up a house, lead is just one of your worries. You're also likely to stir up asbestos fibers and assorted disease-laden critter droppings.

Keep your hands out of your mouth, and wash your hands before you eat.

(We old-house gurus used to warn people to wash their hands before they smoked, but then we realized that the smoking would mess 'em up quicker than the lead.)

Wash your work clothes at the end of every workday.

Keep children out of the work area.

Also, women who are pregnant-or who might get pregnant-should stay out of the work area.

Most of the lead paint worries center around children, and rightly so. Children are particularly susceptible to lead poisoning because their little bodies contain relatively little blood (which makes the lead concentration higher), and their little brains don't develop so well in the presence of lead-laced blood.

Little kids tend to ingest lead not by gnawing on lead-painted surfaces, but by getting their hands in lead-laden dust and then sticking their hands in their mouths. The dust comes from "friction surfaces," such as window tracks and door jambs.

I know I can't win by chiding America's parents, but hell, I'm going to do it anyway: You can greatly reduce your kids' lead-poisoning risk just by keeping the house-and the kids' hands-clean. No lead-laden dust, no dusty hands, no problem.

A while back, I tried to explain this to an overwrought daddy. I told him, "It's simple: Just don't let the kids eat the paint." He looked at me with his head sideways and said these very words: "How am I supposed to do that?"

Well, bubba, I suppose you do it the same way you keep them from eating out of the catbox and washing it down with Clorox. You watch them and correct them as necessary. You signed on for that job when sperm met egg. If you need me to work out the details for you, your life is just going to be hard.

If you're worried about lead, then get everybody in the family a blood test every year. I know, it would be better to eliminate the lead hazards up front. But that would involve testing all the dirt the kids play in, the water supply the family drinks, all the plates you eat from, and the umbrellas you tote. I say test the humans, not the houses. It makes sense to me.