Lead may be poisoning someone you love

Lead paint tastes sweet, enticing children to nibble on paint chips flaking from window sills in older homes. And that’s one reason one out of every 23 children in the United States has lead poisoning.

But a more important reason for the problem is improper maintenance and repair — by contractors, renovators, painters and homeowners who fail to deal properly with the hazard.

“You need people to think twice,” says Asheville Home Inspection Coordinator Jeff Baker. “When you fix a window sill or scrape old paint, you could be poisoning yourself or your family.”

Lead paint — banned in this country in 1978 — remains a problem in older buildings, he points out. But few people know how to avoid potentially hazardous situations, Baker reports.

Worse than paint chips, he notes, is the lead dust created from scraping or sanding layers of old paint that may contain lead. Less dust than you can dab on your fingertip may contain enough lead to poison a child, particularly one who is younger than 6 years old, he says.

One simple precaution is to dampen paint surfaces before scraping … and to avoid using sanders, unless they’re outfitted with a special vacuum that sucks up the dust, Baker continues.

People also can take other simple, inexpensive steps when working with lead paint. To get the word out, the city is co-sponsoring a Sept. 20 workshop titled “Screen, Clean and Stabilize,” Baker says. “It’s our social responsibility.”

Lead poisoning, in the early stages, causes flu-like symptoms that, to adults, may simply be annoying. But lead poisoning in adults can lead to brain damage. For developing children 2 years old or less, the effects can even more devastating. “Lead is everywhere. It can be in old paint, pottery glazes. … Imported crayons used to contain lead. Pool-cue chalk may contain lead,” says Nan Burnette, program coordinator for the Lead Prevention Program headquartered at UNCA’s Environmental Quality Institute.

Burnette notes that lead poisoning isn’t as common in Buncombe County as it is in other areas of the country. Although lead-paint poisonings are more common in poorer households, she has seen it happen to all manner of families, from those living in rehabilitated Victorian homes to those in 1970s-built ranchers. “I can go to beautiful homes in the Grove Park area, raise a window sash, and raise lead-paint dust, just from the friction of the window against the sash,” she recounts.

Renovator and Montford resident Pat Buehler admits such facts surprised her. “I’m really fussy about old paint. I scrape it all off. But until recently, I wouldn’t wear a mask [while scraping]. It was too hot in the summer,” she says. But a neighbor’s story heightened her awareness, and convinced her to sign up for the workshop to better inform herself.

Her neighbor was exposed to lead in gasoline many years ago, after using it to rinse clothes, boots and tools used for roofing work. That exposure, and subsequent exposures to lead in paint, caused a nearly debilitating illness that kept her from working for several years. Even now, Buehler’s neighbor suffers a lingering high sensitivity to lead. The neighbor noticed Buehler not using a mask while doing renovation work and, pointblank, told her, “That’s stupid.”

“I didn’t feel sick. I didn’t think about the risks,” admits Buehler. Did her neighbor’s tale change her views? “It sure has. Now I wear a mask during renovations, and I make my workers wear them,” Buehler replies. “Men, in general, don’t want to wear a mask. It’s not manly. But you need to.”

And that’s not all: Cleanup after the job must be attended to. Buehler knows of parents who wisely kept their child away from the house during renovations, only later to find the child had been poisoned, probably by lead dust that hadn’t been contained or cleaned up properly.

Charles MacKenzie, Regional Environmental Health Specialist of the state’s Children’s Environmental Health Branch, recounts the story of a man who came home from work every day, and relaxed in his recliner while his child jumped on his lap, after which the two ate dinner without washing their hands. From that bit of contact, his child became poisoned by lead.

“That’s not an atypical case,” notes MacKenzie. While federally funded construction and rehab projects require workers to clean up before going home, many smaller contractors are simply not aware of the need. Education is key. So is convincing parents and physicians to have a routine blood test done to detect lead poisoning.

“Since the removal of lead [from] gasoline, folks think the lead problem is gone. It’s not. Some vinyl blinds still on the market may contain lead. One-third of the cases I see relate to lead poisoning from common miniblinds and weatherstripping. We’re desperately trying to get people to understand the consequences,” MacKenzie declares.

“Now that I know how serious it is, I want to know more. I realize now that my cleanup work has not been good enough: If I reuse a mop head, I’m just spreading the lead dust around,” says Buehler. “We’re all walking around, uninformed.”

To better educate people such as Buehler, the workshop is bringing in a top national expert: Dennis Livingston, author of Maintaining a Lead Safe Home. His work is so well recognized, says Baker, that the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development got permission to incorporate most of the material from his book into their own official guide, Lead Paint Safety.

In addition to Livingston’s involvement, the workshop has been strengthened by cooperative efforts among the city, local realtors and educators such as Livingston and Burnette. Two key co-sponsors of the event, Baker points out, are the Buncombe County Board of Realtors and the Carolina Real Estate Investors Association.

MacKenzie would also like to see more physicians getting involved. While such facilities as the Buncombe County Board of Health offer free blood screening for children, many family physicians remain unaware that they also can get free screening for children under their care. And whenever a case of lead poisoning is reported — however small — Burnette is available, thanks to a state grant, to test the child’s or adult’s household, find the source of contamination, and recommend cleanup measures — at no charge. Says MacKenzie, “Parents need to be aware, too. It’s just a matter of getting everybody on board.”

The fee for the workshop is a mere $20. Two sessions will be held, at 9 a.m. and 2 p.m. on Wednesday, Sept. 20,, at UNCA’s Owen Hall. Participants will have several opportunities to attend a hands-on demonstration. Scholarships are also available for those who want to pursue further training or qualify as inspectors. For scholarship information, contact Isaac Coleman at 259-5735. For more information, contact Nan Burnette at 251-6104, or Jeff Baker at 259-5665.

About Margaret Williams
Editor Margaret Williams first wrote for Xpress in 1994. An Alabama native, she has lived in Western North Carolina since 1987 and completed her Masters of Liberal Arts & Sciences from UNC-Asheville in 2016. Follow me @mvwilliams

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