Your lead poisoning questions answered: Toxic Neglect

Here are some of the questions posed by readers.

(Andrea Levy)

CLEVELAND, Ohio -- Readers responded on and on social media to our stories last week on the still-staggering impact of childhood lead poisoning in Greater Cleveland.

[If you missed out, you can find the stories here.]

Some had additional questions, and reporters Brie Zeltner and Rachel Dissell found answers to a handful of them.

We're also exploring additional stories, some of them suggested by readers. Check back for those in the next few weeks.

Find answers to a few questions below. Have additional questions? Join the conversation here or Tweet us at @BrieZeltner or @RachelDissell.

Q. Can children be exposed to lead from drinking tap water?

A. Yes. It's considered a less likely source of lead poisoning than lead-based paint, but according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which regulates lead in drinking water through the Safe Drinking Water Act, the heavy metal enters tap water through the breakdown or wearing away of older plumbing materials.

Homes built before 1986 are more likely to have older lead pipes, fixtures and solder that can leach, or leak into, water.

Brass or chrome-plated brass faucets and fixtures are the most common sources of lead in drinking water, particularly when these are exposed to hot water, according to the EPA.

As a precaution, Cleveland Water recommends that residents in these older homes let the cold tap water run 30 seconds to 2 minutes, to flush out any lead contaminants.

Also, always use cold water for cooking and drinking since hot water dissolves lead in pipes more quickly than cold water.

If a child in your home has high blood lead levels, a home inspection should be done to determine the cause but water testing is not automatically part of that process.

If you suspect your water contains lead and you want to have it tested, check here for an Ohio EPA-certified laboratory. You can also call EPA's Safe Drinking Water Hotline Monday to Friday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. at 800-426-4791 or visit their web site here.

There are also faucet and pitcher filters that remove lead from drinking water. For a list of faucet filters certified to remove lead by NSF International, a consumer product safety organization, check here. For pitcher filters, check here.

More information is available here.

Q: Can't kids get exposed to lead from cheap toys?

A: Yes. There's been a crackdown on importing lead-painted toys into the United States in recent years, though vintage toys are still considered a risk for children to play with.

Your lead poisoning questions answered: Toxic Neglect

Plastics containing lead also have not been banned completely, though theU.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission had been phasing out acceptable levels of lead in toys since it had to recall hundreds of thousands of popular toys due to lead dangers in 2007 and 2008.

Lead is used to soften plastic and make it durable in hot weather. But when exposed to the elements - think backyard or beach toys - the plastic can break down exposing children to lead dust, according to The Centers for Disease Control.

Plastic toys, produced in the 1970s and 1980s can also be a risk for lead and other toxins.

Health officials warn parents to also watch out for cheaply made discount or dollar store toys, which have been found to contain high levels of lead.

Some stores or websites sell kits to test toys for lead but they can't be used to determine how much of the toxin a toy might contain.

You can keep tabs on recalls of toys found to contain lead or to be a health or safety risk here. Or call 1-800-638-2772.

Q. Are adults in danger of lead exposure?

A. Yes, though the risk to adults is much lower than young children, for a variety of reasons. You can read more about that here.

Adults who work in certain occupations are at an increased risk of exposure to lead. Some of these occupations include paint, rubber, plastic and metal manufacturing, construction, remodeling, contracting, demolition, plumbing and welders, press operators and emergency personnel, among others. For a full list from the Ohio Department of Health, check here.

Symptoms of lead poisoning in adults are wide-ranging and sometimes hard to distinguish from other common health conditions. They include loss of appetite, fatigue, irritability, metallic taste, headache and muscle pain, among others. Exposure to a high dose of lead all at once can lead to swelling of the brain, seizures, coma or even death. Chronic exposure over time can cause decreased sperm counts, and lead can be passed through breast milk to babies.

If you have questions about your exposure to lead at work, you can call the Ohio Department of Health at 614-466-2627 or 1-877-LEADSAFE (532-3723).

Q: Is it mandated that government-supported housing, known as "Section 8" is free of lead hazards?

A: Rentals approved for the program are inspected before a family moves in and landlords are responsible for maintaining certain health and safety standards. See an inspection checklist here.

Inspectors are supposed to look for any type of deteriorated paint or other telltale signs of lead hazards in each room and on the outside of the home. If they spot those hazards, they can ask a landlord to have a complete lead assessment before being approved to rent to a family with children under the age of 6.

That visual inspection will catch some, but not all, lead hazards and does not include a check for lead dust created by opening and closing windows and doors coated with layers of old lead paint.

Q: Should special products be used to clean lead?

Products like trisodium phosphate (TSP) help to remove lead. The chemical, which binds to lead particles, is dangerous, though, for children and also bad for the water system (it's one of those that contributes to algal blooms.)

Health officials say TSP might best be used to clean up after renovation but studies have demonstrated that most household cleaners will do the job if used properly. It's the method for cleaning that matters, including disposing or separating rags or sponges.

Studies are divided on the use of vacuums with special HEPA filters for cleaning lead dust. The vacuums are effective but expensive. Some health officials recommend using a cheaper vacuum or one with a HEPA or allergen bag for surfaces with lead dust. Just don't open the bag in the house or use the same vacuum (or broom or mop) for lead and non-lead surfaces.

Here's a quick primer by Plain Dealer graphic artist Bill Neff on some techniques for reducing lead hazards in homes.

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