Lead is a highly toxic metal that is found naturally in the earth’s crust. It is used to produce many consumer products (like pipes, cars, electronics and batteries). Lead was once used in products like paint and gas, but the Government of Canada now restricts its use in many products.
Everyone is exposed to low levels of lead through food, drinking water, air, dust, soil and some consumer products. But ongoing exposure to lead may be harmful to your health.
One way to reduce children’s exposure to lead is to reduce dust in your home. Because children tend to put things in their mouths, dirt and household dust are among the main sources of lead for children under six years of age. Dusting, vacuuming and wet-mopping will all help to keep down levels of dust.
Lead poisoning can cause many harmful health effects, especially to your brain, nervous system, blood system and kidneys. The risks are greater for children, because their growing bodies are still developing and absorb lead more easily.
Exposure to even low levels of lead can cause harmful effects on children’s development. Pregnant women must also be careful, as lead can pass through the placenta.
Exposure to high levels of lead can cause vomiting, diarrhea, convulsions, coma or even death. But severe cases of lead poisoning are rare in Canada.
You can be exposed to lead by sucking, chewing, or swallowing products that have lead in them, breathing lead fumes. Lead can stay in your body for over 25 years following exposure.
Anyone who swallows an item made of lead is at high risk of severe or fatal lead poisoning. Get medical help right away.
Lead in paint
Lead-based paint in your home is a serious health hazard if it is chipping or flaking, or if it is within the reach of children who might chew on it.
Your home probably contains lead-based paint if it was built before 1960. If built between 1960 and 1990, the exterior may contain lead-based paint. The paint on interior surfaces may also contain lead in smaller amounts that could still be harmful, especially to young children. Lead paint can cause harm to health if it enters the body. Houses built after 1990 should not contain lead because all consumer paints produced in Canada and the U.S. were virtually lead-free by this time.
How do I know if I have a problem?
- If you think the paint in your home may contain lead, have it tested. A certified inspector can measure paint lead levels in your home, or you can mail paint chip samples to a testing laboratory.
- To find an inspector or laboratory in your area, contact the Standards Council of Canada or the Canadian Association for Laboratory Accreditation. Search online or check your local telephone directory for Laboratories – Analytical and Testing.
- Be sure to contact the lab first, and follow all directions for gathering and sending the paint chips.
What can I do if I have lead-based paint?
- If the lead-based paint is in good condition and is not on a surface that a child might chew, your risk is minimal. It’s best to leave it alone, paint over it, or cover it with wallpaper, wallboard or paneling.
- If the lead-based paint is cracking, chipping, flaking or peeling, or if it is on a surface that a child might chew, here is how you can remove the paint:
- Do not use sanders, heat guns or blowlamps to remove paint in older homes. This can create dust and fumes that contain lead.
- Use a chemical paint stripper, ideally one with a paste that can be applied with a brush.
- Paint strippers also contain substances that may be harmful, so use them carefully. Keep children and pregnant women away from the work area and always wear goggles, gloves and a good-quality breathing mask. See The Safe Use of Paint Strippers for more information.
- See Health Canada’s fact sheet Lead-based Paint before starting any renovation project in an older home.
Lead in plumbing
Plumbing systems in homes built before 1975 may have lead pipes (also called lead service lines). They may have solder or other plumbing parts that contain lead. This lead can leach into drinking water sitting in pipes.
How do I know if I have a problem?
You can check with your municipality or water utility to see if there are lead service lines in your area. A plumber can identify whether your service line (supply pipe) is made of lead. You can also look at the pipe entering your home, and if it is greyish-black, or soft and easily dented when scraped with a knife, it is likely made of or contains lead.
If there are lead service lines or other lead-based materials in your plumbing system, you can have your tap water tested for lead content. Some towns and cities have an established sampling program, while others may sample and test it if you ask them. In some cases, you may have to arrange for your own sampling and analysis by an accredited lab.
To find a lab in your area, contact the Standards Council of Canada or the Canadian Association for Laboratory Accreditation, search online or check your local telephone directory for Laboratories – Analytical and Testing.
What can I do if I have lead in my plumbing?
- Always let tap water run until it is cold before using it for drinking, cooking and especially for making baby formula. This is very important after water has been sitting in the pipes for long periods of time, like first thing in the morning.
- Don’t use water from the hot water tap for cooking or drinking. Use cold water instead.
- Contact your local Public Health Department if you’re concerned about high lead levels in your home’s drinking water.
Other sources of lead
Other possible sources of lead in your home include:
- consumer products containing lead, like costume jewellery, art supplies, leaded crystal and glazes on ceramics and pottery
- working on a hobby that involves the use of lead or lead solder, like making stained glass, lead shot or lead fishing weights
- visiting older buildings that have flaking or peeling lead paint, or that are undergoing renovations
- behaviours like smoking, or swallowing soil
Workers in smelters, refineries and other industries may be exposed to high levels of lead. Lead dust may be breathed in. It can also cling to skin, hair, clothing and vehicles and be carried to the home, exposing workers’ families. Most provincial governments require that workers exposed to lead be monitored for blood lead levels.
What can I do to reduce my family’s exposure to lead?
- Clean your house regularly to remove dust and particles that may contain lead. This is especially important for surfaces that young children might touch often.
- Do not keep food or drinks in lead crystal containers for any length of time. Do not serve pregnant women or children drinks in crystal glasses. Babies should never drink from lead crystal.
- If you own glazed glass or ceramic dishes bought outside of Canada, do not use them for serving food or drinks. They may contain higher levels of lead than are allowed in Canada.
- If you have children six years of age or under, remove any horizontal PVC (plastic) mini-blinds made in Asia or Mexico from your home.
- Discourage children from putting things into their mouths unless they are intended to be mouthed (like food and pacifiers).
- If you work in a smelter, refinery or any other industry where you are exposed to high levels of lead, shower and change your clothing before going home. Make sure you have your blood lead level checked regularly.
- Never burn waste oil, coloured newsprint, battery casings or wood covered with lead paint in or near your home, because lead fumes may be released. Dispose of them through your city or town’s hazardous waste program.
- If you use lead solder in a hobby (like making stained glass), use a good quality breathing mask, keep surfaces clean and keep children and pregnant women out of the area. Wash hands after handling lead solder.
- Avoid eating wild animals that have been shot with lead bullets. Use non-lead bullets and shots when hunting for food.
- If you are concerned about exposure to lead, speak to your doctor.