Lead Poisoning: What Every Parent Needs to Know

You all know that my blog is not a tireless dirge of doom and gloom. (I talk about bras too much for that to be the case.) But there is one topic that, while definitely being home improvement-related, does not fit in with the usual form of levity around these parts. Nonetheless, it has hit close to home and I hope the story, while long, will resonate with you, as well.

Lead. More specifically, lead poisoning in children.

what every parent needs to know about lead poisoning

It’s one of those things that I heard about occasionally, but didn’t necessarily think much about. I naively believed lead poisoning to be the result of something drastic and neglectful like a child physically ingesting loads of lead paint from old windowsills, something that could surely never happen to me because hello I will not have chippy old windowsills and wouldn’t let my kid chew on them anyway.

Turns out I was wrong. Turns out it’s much easier than that for a child to end up with lead poisoning, especially when you live in an old home that almost definitely contains lead paint. Turns out you can be the most attentive, loving parent and homeowner and still be looking in horror at elevated lead levels, not knowing what you should have done to prevent it and wondering what kind of future your child could have had if you had known sooner.

This is what happened to a friend of mine, who we will call Natalie to protect her privacy. She has a daughter who is almost two (we will call her Abby), and last year at Abby’s one-year check-up she was tested, as children now are in New York, for lead in her blood. Natalie didn’t think anything of it until the results came back with a lead level of 10. According to the New York State Department of Health, this requires action.

lead levels in childrenSource

Initial feelings of indignation—Natalie had previously shared my beliefs about the causes of lead poisoning—were quickly replaced by confusion. How could this happen? Where is the lead coming from? Next was the horror and regret: what have I done to my child? No mother wants to face that question, and Natalie said she spent many days and nights in tears as she and her husband began the painful process of figuring out what had happened and what needed to be done to get Abby’s levels back into a normal, safe range.

So what had happened? They, like us, live in an old house. They, like us, had done significant renovation that involved tearing out old plaster and lathe and replacing it with drywall. Then they, like us, had a baby.

See why this is hitting close to home?

Plaster and lathe alone does not necessarily contain lead, but you know what can: the layers of old paint on that plaster. In their renovation, Natalie and her husband had worn the necessary HEPA masks, sealed everything off, and had cleaned up adequately—or so they truly believed. But the dust created by that process had not been fully eliminated despite their efforts, and, as they learned when the Department of Health came, it had settled into the ducts of their forced air system and into the carpet fibers of their home. Abby’s crib was situated right over a register. Lead dust was found on this because of the dust that had settled into the ducts, meaning it was blowing around the room whenever the heat was on.

The Department of Health also pointed out a key indicator of lead paint’s presence: this scaly, alligator-like effect on a painted surface, which was around their entryway door frame.

sign of lead paintSource

Natalie and her husband hired professionals to clean out the air ducts, had a whole-house water filtration system installed, replaced all of their home’s original windows—the windows themselves had not been painted but the window tracks had, and with lead paint—and all wall-to-wall carpeting was replaced. These are not easy, inexpensive DIY fixes.

As a result of her loving parents’ adamancy to fix this, Abby’s blood lead levels are now down to a 1. The thing with those lead levels, though, is that the damage done from an elevated level is irreversible. Natalie and her husband also have no way of knowing what the levels are in her brain, which gets rid of the lead more slowly than the blood.

Abby is a beautiful, happy, and healthy little girl—but Natalie finds herself wondering what her future could have held that it no longer will because of her exposure to lead. Abby met some of her milestones a little later than expected, and while Natalie does not know exactly what the cause of those delays were and will never know for sure, she wonders if they could have been prevented. More specifically, if the knowledge she has now could have changed anything in Abby’s early life.

She won’t ever know. But what Natalie does know is that knowledge is power, and in this case, it has the power to change the future of someone else’s little girl or boy, which is why she gave me her blessing to share her story.

She wants you to know that all it takes to elevate a child’s lead levels is 30 particles of lead dust. This can fit on your fingertip.

She wants you to know that images like this make her simultaneously sad and angry, recognizing that tell-tale alligator scale created by old lead paint and wondering what she can do to prevent the children in those pictures from coming in contact with this window-turned-decor. Because one little loose flake is all it would take to cause irreversible damage.

lead paint and children

She wants you to know that she would have done anything to prevent this from happening to her own child. And she hopes that by sharing her story, she can prevent another mother somewhere from experiencing the same pain and regret with which she now lives.

What you can do in addition to sharing this story with others:

  • Before sanding, scraping or disturbing old painted surfaces, test it for lead. You can buy a lead test at the hardware store for less than $10.
  • If doing renovation in a home built prior to 1978 (the year lead was banned from paint), use a HEPA certified vacuum and soap and water to clean up areas in which potential lead dust has been created. Do NOT dry sweep or use a regular vacuum, as this will stir up the dust even more.
  • Have your ducts professionally cleaned if lead dust has been created in your home. This is the only way to ensure there is no lead dust remaining.
  • Consider what you are drinking: if the water pipes are old, they may contain lead. Use a certified water filtration system for your water.
  • Walk away from those chippy old things and instead create your own non-toxic distressed finish on pieces.
  • Visit here for a list of common lead sources.

Have you had any experience with lead paint? Do you have any wisdom to share? Do you have any questions that my friend can answer for us? She is admittedly more of an expert than she wishes she had to be.


  1. thank you for this! i try to keep my kids safe and don't have anything in their rooms or really in the house except for a couple of windows which aren't hanging, because this worries me. i also want to point out that annie sloan chalk paint contains lead and i don't recommend it for high chairs, cribs, etc. once sealed it is ok, and same with the old paint- once sealed over with poly it typically is ok to be around.

    1. Wow--I never in a million years would have guessed that a modern paint product contained lead. Thank you for sharing that!

  2. Thanks so much for sharing this!! It opened my eyes to some things I didn't know.

  3. Oh wow. How horrible. I am sending this to my husband ASAP. We have way too many things that look like that in our 100 year old home. Eek.
    Thanks Erin!!

  4. Thank you for sharing this! I test every new piece of furniture we bring in for lead, just to be sure!

  5. Oh my gosh, I'm totally freaking out right now. We try to be really careful, but I feel like we need to test things - especially those vents - after our renovation. Thank you for sharing.

    1. I realized I was glad I could freak out before it was too late because that saying “what you don’t know can’t hurt you” doesn’t apply here. I hope you can get a little peace of mind by checking some stuff.

  6. Anonymous5/16/2013

    I read an article several years ago that stated one of the reasons they banned lead in gasoline was because the lead emmissons from the car exhaust fell back to the ground. The soil around homes and schools that were near major freeways became so saturated with lead that the children playing outside were becoming lead poisoned. No one could figure out why until one scientist traced the lead back to our vehicles and the gas we were using.

    Also, another source of lead we never think about is twinkle Christmas lights. You should never let your children handle them because they have a very thin layer of lead coating on the glass.

  7. Yikes...so scary!! Thanks for reminding everyone how this can happen! :)

  8. Oh my goodness! Brings tears to my eyes to think of what she was going through, and this confirms for me our decision to only use live christmas trees! Thank you so much for sharing this post... pinning it!

  9. We live in an old apartment that was built in the 1930's and I am always so nervous about lead paint. I assumed you'd have to eat the lead paint chips to have any negative effects but after this I'm probably going get a lead test kit. Thank you for sharing the story!

  10. Wow, Erin, that's unnerving. Now I understand my DIL's obsession with stripping and repainting all the trim in their old house.

  11. I've heard many a stories like this! Glad everything turned out okay in this case!

  12. Shared this on the blog today in my you-musts. This article really opened my husband and my eyes and we did get Henry tested for lead. Thankfully, his levels are below normal. But we've also taken this as an opportunity to touch up some paint and scrape and paint the back porch. Better safe than sorry.

  13. Thanks for sharing, Erin! The subject matter is rather alarming, and spreading awareness might help save a life. Sometimes, you think that you have done everything to protect your child from getting exposed to harm, but it turns out that having a clean environment on the surface is not enough to keep them safe.

    Leora Yang @ Environmental Diseases


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