This Old House

Renovating rather than moving? Be aware of the danger of lead exposure.


If the nesting instinct has you channeling Bob Vila from This Old House, take note: The proportion of childhood lead poisoning cases attributed to home renovations and repairs has doubled, from under 7 percent in the mid-1990s to more than 14 percent in 2006–2007, according to a new study. Sprucing up older homes is particularly dangerous for pregnant women and young children, says study author Eileen Franko, Dr. P.H., director of the Bureau of Occupational Health at New York State’s Depart-ment of Health. She predicts the current collapse of the real estate market will worsen the problem.

“People can’t sell, so they do things to make their home look better or be more livable,” Franko says. “When the housing market went down in 1993–1994, there was a 300 percent increase in renovation and remodeling.”

Many people think of lead poisoning as primarily a risk to toddlers who nibble on paint chips from deteriorating windowsills in rundown inner-city housing. Yet more than half of the lead-poisoning cases in Franko’s study were in the suburbs or rural areas—and in two-thirds of the cases caused by renovations and repairs, the work was done by do-it-yourselfers.

Lead’s heavy toll

“Mothers-to-be have an urge to fix up the nursery or refinish a hand-me-down crib,” Franko says. Unfor-tunately, the homes and furnishings that need the most renovation tend to be laced with lead, a heavy metal that can damage the brain, kidneys and bone marrow. The developing systems of fetuses and babies are particularly vulnerable; high lead levels can cause learning disabilities, behavioral problems, lowered IQ, even irreversible brain damage.

“The older your home, the more likely it is to contain lead,” says Franko. (It was added to paint to brighten colors and make the paint job last longer.) When scientists discovered lead’s effect on health, it was gradually removed and finally banned in 1978; since then childhood lead poisoning cases have plummeted. Lead-based paint is harmless as long as it remains intact or is covered by lead-free paint. The danger comes when someone removes old paint or preps it for a fresh coat. Sanding and scraping create clouds of dust loaded with lead that can be inhaled or ingested.

“It’s this easy, low-tech, low-cost work that homeowners do themselves that causes the highest level of dust,” Franko explains.

If feathering your nest means disturbing the paint in your older home, insist that the work be done one room at a time and that workers (preferably licensed specialists) seal off the room and wet-wipe surfaces to remove dust and paint chips. And stay out of the work area. “Any expectant woman who exposes herself to lead dust is exposing her fetus in a direct 1-to-1 correlation,” Franko says. “The placental barrier won’t protect your baby.”