Get the Lead Out

By now most of you have heard about the lead poisoning crisis that is ongoing in Flint, Mich. Politics aside, the problem stemmed from the city of Flint switching water sources from the city of Detroit’s water system to the Flint River which was much more corrosive to Flint’s aging infrastructure. The corrosive water leached lead from the water pipes; the lead was ingested by the residents of Flint, likely causing health problems for years to come.

The logical question raised is: Just how susceptible are we to hidden health hazards in our existing building stock? The answer varies and often requires professional testing to accurately determine the risk.

Although prevalent in use throughout history, lead is hazardous to building occupants. Particularly to children who can develop neurological issues early in life that may never go away. People with prolonged exposure to lead may also be at risk for high blood pressure, heart disease, kidney disease and reduced fertility. Studies have determined there is no safe level of lead in our buildings.

Lead was an element used in many building products in the early 20th century. It was used heavily in plumbing products because it is a soft metal and easily malleable. Lead was in piping products and even in solder used to connect pipes together. In many cities, lead plumbing lines were used for the water main into the building well into the 1950s until copper lines become more prevalent. The hazard with lead in our water lines is that it can leach out into the water supply and be ingested into our bodies. Typically, the only remedy for removing lead from our water supply is to replace the piping with non-lead materials.

Another building product where lead was used heavily is paint. Lead-based paint was used up until 1978 when it was banned in the U.S. Lead was a common additive to paint to help make it whiter and more durable. Buildings built after 1978 have virtually no risk for lead-based paint but buildings built prior to 1978 have a risk for lead exposure. Lead-based paint becomes a hazard for building occupants if the paint flakes or gets pulverized to dust. It then can be ingested through the mouth or nose.

Testing for lead in our water lines is a relatively straightforward test that involves an environmental professional collecting water samples to send to a laboratory for analysis. Testing for lead-based paint is slightly more complicated and can involve sampling from dust wipes, collecting paint chips or using specialized x-ray scanning technology. All of these tests should be performed by a qualified professional and sent to a professional laboratory for analysis.

Environmental hazards abound in older buildings, particularly buildings that have not had major renovations in recent years. When in doubt about the presence of lead risks consult a qualified environmental professional who can provide a holistic analysis of your building.

About the Author

Nathan M. Gillette
Nathan M. Gillette, AIA, LEED AP O+M, CEM, is director of Natura Architectural Consulting, Grand Rapids, Mich., and a retrofit editorial advisor. He works with clients to successfully implement and manage energy efficiency and sustainability projects.

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