Lead is a natural element — a metal. But, like many things in nature, it’s toxic. No amount of exposure to it is considered safe.
Lead is a well-known villain in public health. Its presence in the water supply caused a crisis in Flint, Mich. Researchers have found links between lead use in the 1970s and violent crime. In adults, it causes organ damage, high blood pressure and other health problems. But in children, it’s especially dangerous — disrupting development and permanently affecting a child’s intelligence and behavior, even in small amounts.
And public health experts have warned for generations that a major source of lead poisoning in the U.S. is lead-based paint. That paint is often found in homes built before 1978 — the year regulators banned its use. Flaking, chipping or peeling lead paint makes a home hazardous to children. Dust from deteriorating lead paint also harms children.
The symptoms can take months or years to show up, and they can mimic other problems. That is why the state and most private insurers cover lead screening tests for children — and why parents may not realize their child is in trouble until he or she is tested.
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About three in every 10 houses in Ada County are likely to contain lead paint, a Statesman analysis of property data found. (The data may not include condos and do not include apartments.) The share built in the lead-paint era varies by city, from 6 percent in Star to 42 percent in Boise.
In rental properties, that share is much higher. Nearly half of Boise residential properties that aren’t on record as being occupied by a homeowner — which means they’re probably rentals — are from the lead-paint era.
The entire state has about 325,000 housing units that were built while lead paint was still allowed. More than 40,000 of those are home to low-income families.
‘There’s a success story there’
The good news: Doctors and local public health experts say that despite the presence of lead paint in the Treasure Valley, lead poisoning is not a public-health concern here.
Research from Vox and the Washington State Department of Health suggests Treasure Valley cities share some of the highest risks of lead exposure possible in the U.S. But there are relatively few known cases here of overexposure to the toxic metal.
“There’s a success story there, that we have brought the amount of blood-lead levels down,” said Colby Adams, manager of the environmental health program for the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare.
Young children in the 1970s grew up with lead levels exponentially higher than they are today, he noted.
About 70 children in Idaho under age 5 tested positive for high levels of lead in their blood last year, according to data from public health districts. Thirty of those children were in Ada County. Often, children with high levels are from refugee families who received more lead exposure in their home countries, according to the local health district.
That number is significantly higher than in previous years, when the number of cases was in the single digits. But the spike isn’t because more kids ingested lead. It’s because national health experts lowered the threshold at which lead exposure is tracked, dropping it by half, and Idaho followed suit.
“It’s not just Boise, it’s the West in general,” Adams said of the relatively low lead-poisoning rates. “It has a smaller amount of the urban housing, it probably wasn’t built in the same time frames that you see on the East Coast.”
And compared to other regions, Idaho doesn’t have a long history of lead-producing industries.
“We still have mining, and there are areas where mine tailings could contain lead, but it’s just not as widespread as the East Coast, Ohio, those places in the East,” he said.
Some states and cities have taken action to reduce lead exposure in their communities. Ohio took advantage of a federal Housing and Urban Development grant to make homes in a number of counties lead-safe.
It isn’t an easy problem to solve. It is expensive to remove or encapsulate lead paint, or to hire EPA-certified firms to do renovations. When families are in older, deteriorating homes because they can’t afford newer and better-maintained ones, they are in a toxic Catch-22.
What about day cares?
Many local infants, toddlers and preschoolers spend a huge chunk of their day in child care centers that contain lead paint.
About one-third of the licensed child care centers in Boise are in buildings likely to have lead paint, based on a Statesman analysis of property records.
Local child care centers don’t have to pass a lead inspection to get licensed — a requirement in some other parts of the country. They do have to pass overall inspections by public health districts, though.
Tom Schmalz manages the food and child care programs for the Central District Health Department, which oversees inspections in Ada, Boise, Elmore and Valley counties. He said his team can catch lead-exposure hazards — like chipped paint — during three different parts of the 31-point annual inspections.
Schmalz said the district recommends contacting a professional contractor for any extensive lead problem in a child care facility. But, he said, that’s hardly ever necessary. Inspectors haven’t found a lot of lead issues in local day cares, and parents aren’t complaining about that, he said.
Aubrie McArthur, a program specialist in the Idaho Child Care Program, knows of only two centers in the state that had lead problems in the past two years. That’s out of 1,300 licensed providers.
“Families need to look for quality, and it’s OK to ask providers questions about these things,” she said. “As much as we need to regulate health and safety, parents need to be advocates. ... I always encourage families to say something, get nosy, ask your provider to look around the entire facility.”
3% of houses in Southeast Boise were built before 1978
79% of houses in Boise’s North End were built before 1978
Acuarela, a Spanish-language preschool at 19th and Idaho streets in Boise, is one of many child care centers in lead-era buildings.
Owned by Belén Guillen Coryell, the family-run center has up to 12 children at a time, ages 2 1/2 to 5. It’s in a green-trimmed Craftsman-style house that, like many of its neighbors in North Boise, is more than 100 years old.
Coryell had concerns about lead paint when she bought the building. But house inspectors “said it’s not a big issue because there are so many layers of paint on top — unless you do a demolition because dust is going to come up here and you’ll breathe it,” she said.
Concerns about that happening at a place where children live and play are behind a federal rule that took effect in 2010, saying any contractor whose work disturbs paint in a pre-1978 home, child care facility or school must be EPA-certified and follow lead-safe practices that contain the dust.
Acuarela has never undergone a lead paint inspection. But one of the preschool’s teachers said the employees are aware of lead dangers and pay attention to the condition of the building’s paint, which the teacher said is pretty well maintained.
How do I test for lead?
You can buy lead-testing kits at home improvement stores. The sticks are easy to use, dispensing a liquid that turns red when it contacts lead. You also can hire an EPA-certified lead inspector.
If you’re the parent or guardian of a child who may have been exposed to lead, you can ask your child’s physician to do a blood test. Idaho Medicaid already tests children enrolled in its low-income insurance program. More than 6,000 children on Idaho Medicaid received blood lead screenings in the last fiscal year.
How do I keep my kids from being exposed?
If your home contains lead-based paint, you can hire an EPA-certified contractor to remediate it. This can cost many thousands of dollars, so it’s not an option for many people. If you’re on a tight budget or you’re a renter, the EPA offers steps to minimize the risk of exposure.
If you’re worried about lead in your water — from old pipes or even faucets — you can take precautions such as flushing pipes after water has been sitting in them. Use only cold water when you cook, drink or make baby formula. Boiling water does not get rid of lead.
No matter what, never dry-sand or dry-scrape lead paint. If you’re doing work on an old house, keep pregnant women and children away from the construction zone, and be careful not to contaminate the rest of the house. Follow lead-safe practices. For example, wear a respirator mask that is labeled for lead paint removal, keep the painted surface wet to minimize dust, and use plastic sheeting to protect the area around your work space from lead flakes and dust.