Protect your home from the dangers of lead paint

We do so much to keep our home and our families safe. But one dangerous threat could be coming from inside your home; lead paint on your walls.

Lead paint was banned by the government, but not before it was widely used for its durability. Inside or outside, easy to notice or not, your home and your health could be at risk.

"In a lot of older housing, especially when you're in a city like Ottumwa where you have a lot of older housing stock, it's not unusual at all to find lead paint," said Jody Gates, Ottumwa Director of Health, Inspections and Solid Waste. "Maybe it's not on the surface, but it's underneath other layers of paint, and Iowa has a lot of older housing stock, and so has the potential, unfortunately, to have a high prevalence of lead poisoned children."

Gates also said areas like Ottumwa tend to rebuild and reconstruct older houses, rather than tear them down. That kind of work cracks walls, chips paint and stirs dust, which is when lead paint becomes dangerous. Any building built before 1978 has the potential to contain lead paint, and hiring a certified contractor to inspect the area is the first step in protecting your home.

"As a hired contractor, you have two choices," said Dee Christner, of Christner Contracting. "Either assume that it's lead-based paint, or to do a test. And it does have to be an EPA-certified test in order to say if its not lead-based paint."

If a contractor does find lead-based paint in the home, they are required to give the homeowner a pamphlet briefing lead paint and the health risks associated with it. Lead-based renovators complete a professional training program to become certified.

If construction or remodeling is going on, Christner says its the contractor's job to properly treat the area and make sure workers take the necessary precautions. For example, any area with lead-based paint larger than two feet by two feet must be covered.

To completely rid a building of lead paint, a paint abatement company must be hired. For resources on area abatements, visit the Iowa Department of Public Health.

Children are most at risk to be affected by lead poisoning, since their bodies absorb the lead faster.

"Our city of Ottumwa and Wapello County has been involved in a childhood lead poisoning prevention program for more than 15 years," Gates said. "And we have conducted lead inspections all over Wapello County and in the city of Ottumwa, and unfortunately, every year, we come up with new cases of lead poisoned children in houses that contain some sort of lead hazard."

That hazard might be obvious, but it might not. Even disturbed dust that contains lead-based paint can settle on the floor or on surfaces that children easily reach.

"And unfortunately, a lot of the symptoms are similar to symptoms of other things children might have," Gates said. "So it might not clue you into there being a problem, so having a blood lead test is the most important thing you can do if you have any suspicions."

Those symptoms most often show up in children in the form of irritability, hyperactivity, headaches or stomach aches. When it comes to lead, it is always best to err on the side of caution.

"If you're at all concerned -- is it or is it not? -- talk to your pediatrician," said Christner. "Have them do a lead-based test on your child and see where their lead levels are at. That's the only way to know, is my child being exposed?"

Blood lead tests are required for all children entering school.