Lead turns up in many places other than paint


May 01, 1991|By Susan McGrath | Susan McGrath,Los Angeles Times Syndicate

What!?! Not lead again!?

It's a depressing subject, I know. But there are a few miscellaneous sources of lead found in every household that one should know about and take simple steps to avoid.

Lead, as you may know, is a highly toxic metal. At high doses, lead causes all sorts of gruesome damage like muscle palsy and death. Fortunately, very few cases of acute lead poisoning occur every year.

The problem is that lead presents a "continuum of toxicity," in which the slightest exposure contributes to an adverse result somewhere in the body, though it may produce no medical symptoms. In children, low-level lead exposure impairs IQ, attention span and reaction time. In adults, it has been associated with hypertension in men and pregnancy complications in women, including minor birth defects.

Most of the lead in our environment was brought to us compliments of pre-1978 leaded household paint (some of which was as much as 50 percent lead) and leaded gasoline. New paint and most gasoline are lead-free. But the U.S. still uses more than a million tons of lead a year in products such as car batteries (this accounts for 70 percent of current lead use), construction materials, ammunition, brass, glass, industrial paints, glazes and inks.

Because lead is an element, it cannot break down into a friendlier material. It is here to stay, and it is everywhere. Ice layers in Greenland, far from industrial centers, show a record of growing lead use, starting with the Industrial Revolution and increasing up to the present. Skeletons of our contemporaries contain 200 times more lead than those of our preindustrial ancestors.

So let's keep it out of OUR skeletons, as much as is possible. Two previous columns addressed the biggies -- lead in house dust from track-in and remodeling activities, and lead in drinking water. But there are a number of other contributing pathways.

That charming Italian pitcher you use is one such pathway. Improperly glazed ceramic ware can leach dangerous amounts of lead into food and drink. Acidic foods, such as orange, tomato and other fruit juices, tomato sauces, wine and vinegar, create the highest risk, because their acids accelerate the release of lead from the glaze. The Food and Drug Administration says ceramic ware from the U.S., Britain and Japan is generally safe dTC but warns that ceramics from Mexico, Italy, India, Hong Kong, China and other countries can leach dangerous levels of lead. Even ceramic ware that has been properly glazed can deteriorate if washed repeatedly in a dishwasher or vigorously scrubbed. Wash ceramics gently by hand. And don't use them to store acidic foods.

If you use ceramics from any of the riskier countries listed above, you might want to invest in a simple and relatively inexpensive lead test kit. To obtain it, send a check for $29.95 plus $3.50 for shipping to Frandon Enterprises, P.O. Box 300321, 511 N. 48th St., Seattle, Wash. 98103, or call (800) 359-9000. One kit can be used for about 100 tests.

That handsome lead crystal decanter on your sideboard is another pathway. Pour the sherry out, and display the bottle empty. Over time, wine stored in a lead crystal decanter can pick up a lot of lead. Use the decanter for dinner parties, but don't store alcohol in it. If you are pregnant, avoid drinking from crystal altogether. (This will be a hardship, I know.)

After the perils of lead from lead crystal made the news, one manufacturer announced that it would no longer make lead crystal baby bottles. If your little darling drinks from a lead crystal bottle, switch to plastic.

Do you scrupulously reuse the plastic bags that come on commercial loaves of bread? The ink on the wrappers of 18 out of 20 national brands flaked lead paint, according to a study by the Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences Institute in Piscataway, N.J. If you reuse bags, be very careful to use them ink-side out, so that food never touches the ink.

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