It's a charming scene of domestic bliss. Your 10-month-old plays on the rug at your feet. He chews his toys, sucks his fingers, gleans tasty, nearly invisible tidbits from the carpet and generally indulges in age-appropriate behavior. There's only one problem with this cozy picture: The dust in the carpet baby plays on may be contaminated with lead -- at concentrations up to 10 times as high as those at a federal Superfund toxic clean-up site. And the amount of lead in your rug is the best single predictor of lead in your toddler's blood.
Lead is a deadly metal, one that is particularly dangerous to growing children. At moderately low levels of exposure lead shows no symptoms -- none your pediatrician could put a finger on -- but it can cause irreversible damage to your children's nervous systems. Exposure to even very low levels of lead can retard children's mental development, lower their IQs and reduce their attention spans.
Toddlers and infants tend to ingest the most lead because of their behavior -- putting everything in their mouths -- and because of where we put them -- on the rug. The lead in your rugs comes from two main sources: the paint on your walls and the tracking-in of soil.
The lead from exterior house paint and past auto emissions remains permanently embedded in the top layer of soil. In the past 80 years, almost 5 million tons of lead have been mixed into paint. And in the last 50 years, more than 7 million tons of lead have been added to gasoline.
Public health experts believe that lead poisoning is a silent epidemic, one that has reduced the learning ability of 17 percent of preschoolers -- 2.4 million children -- in the United States alone.
What should you do if you have small children? First determine the likelihood that they are being exposed. These facts can help you figure it out:
* Homes built before 1950 have the highest amounts of lead in their paint. Remodeling, peeling paint -- outside or inside -- and removing paint, create the highest risks.
* Homes built between 1950 and 1978 have less lead.
* Old homes near heavy traffic tend to have the most lead around them.
* Apartments may have less lead than houses simply because you walk your shoes clean on hallway mats as you make your way to your apartment.
* Households with good vacuum cleaners that are used regularly and properly have significantly less dust.
If you've determined that your risk is worrisome, you can test the dust in your rug. You'll need a vacuum cleaner, a certified lab and about $50. Most cities have such laboratories, which can be found by looking in the Yellow Pages.
If your results come back high, Dr. Joseph Graziano, professor of pharmacology at Columbia University, recommends that you have your child's blood lead level tested. This is not a lot of fun, but it need not be traumatic. (The Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta recommends that every child be screened for lead poisoning.) Not all experts agree. Consult your pediatrician. Clip this column and take it with you.
At the same time, get the lead dust out of your house. With the right vacuum cleaner and a fair amount of elbow grease, you can reduce lead dust at home by 95 percent.
John Roberts, an environmental toxics specialist in Seattle, Wash., recommends that you buy an industrial-grade mat and put it just inside your front door. Every time someone enters the house, be sure they scrape their feet twice on the mat. Post a sign saying so.
A radical -- and optional -- next step is to declare your home a shoe-free zone. After scraping your shoes on the mat, bend down, take them off. Keep slippers by the door, if you like, or just go barefoot. Ask all visitors and repair people to do the same. Make this as convenient as possible, by providing a bench and a shoe rack.
As for the vacuum cleaner, those with a power sweeper, i.e. an electric agitator bar, are far more effective at removing dust than ordinary canister-style machines are. These cost $100 or more. If you don't have one and cannot afford one, consider sharing one with two or three neighbors.
Go over each section of the carpet four times. Don't forget to vacuum the door mat. Damp mop bare floors. Wipe toys clean. Clean the house this way once a week, or twice a week if you have toddlers. In a few weeks, you can bring your lead dust levels way down and keep them there.
If you are planning any remodeling or repainting, remove or seal rugs and floors with a tarp taped down at the edges. Seal off the areas that are being worked on, and clean the house at the end of the work day. Pregnant women and children should be out of the house while work is under way.
If you are planning any remodeling, call your state department of ecology or public health service for advice.
You can also plant ground cover on any bare soil around the house. And teach your children to wash their hands before eating.
For more information, send $1 to Washington Toxics Coalition, 4516 University Way, N.E., Seattle, Wash. 98105, and ask for the lead fact sheet.
(Questions? Comments? Address them to the Household Environmentalist, Box 121, 1463 E. Republican, Seattle, Wash. 98112.)