The Truth about Lead Poisoning

When residents in Flint, Michigan, began noticing that the color, taste and smell of their water wasn’t normal almost two years ago, the state failed to answer their questions. As the city declared a national emergency last month, they finally have their answers. Their water crisis hits close to home, as Toledo has seen alarming lead levels in the paint used in older homes.

A silent agent loose in our area picks most seriously on children under age six, who are unable to recognize its threat or fight its effects. That agent is lead contained in products and paints all around our children and families, affecting our health and well-being. Lead poisoning,  identified by U.S. health officials as “the most prevalent environmental threat to children in the U.S.,” leaves Toledo as the Ohio city with the second highest number of children with elevated lead levels. In the past three years, Toledo has reported children testing as high as 65 micrograms of lead in a deciliter of blood, when any level above 5 is a matter of serious concern,.  Almost 5% of Toledo-area children are now living with elevated blood levels (EBL) for lead.

Testing not a Solution

A blood test is the most reliable method to detect lead levels. Jonathan Nies, Supervisor at the Toledo Lucas County Health Department, explains that, “Gloria Smith, the Lead Program Case Manager, coordinates with physicians when a child EBL is high risk. A risk assessment is then done on the home only after we receive the referral from the Ohio Department of Health.” He adds, “We do regular health screens in high risk zip code areas.”

In 2012, the Toledo-Lucas County Health Department received a grant for $2,480,000 from the Department of Housing and Urban Development for Lead Based-Paint Hazard Control. The Health Department contracts with the City of Toledo, Department of Neighborhoods, to provide the funds for removing lead, budgeted at approximately $10,000 per dwelling, each taking three to four weeks. The 3-year program, received a one-year extension until June 30, 2016. Its goal: to treat 175 units and make them lead-free, with priority given to households with children under age six or a pregnant female.

Robert Cole, attorney for Advocates for Basic Legal Equality, reports that the program did not meet its goals. Between 2013 and the present, there were 559 intakes (people who expressed an interest in the program). Of those 186 received applications, and 157 of those met the eligibility requirements Of the 157 , only 62 have received clearance to be occupied.  With  typical removal time at 3-4 weeks, and with less than six months until the unused grant money must be returned, it is unlikely the goal will be met.

How did lead become the source of this problem?

Lead is a metal. In its natural state, it is bluish-white shiny, soft, and malleable. It has been used for a variety of purposes for thousands of year. Romans made statues, coins and pipes out of it (its Latin name “plumbum” is the root word of words related to plumbing) and added it to their inferior wines to prolong and sweeten the taste. Many civilizations used it to color clay for ceramic tiles.

More recently, lead was added  to intensify the paint colors, while increasing durability and speeding drying time. Lead-based paints were used to cover wallpaper to kill germs believed to be between the wallpaper and the wall. The paint could be scrubbed with hard strokes that the wallpaper couldn’t withstand.

Today we find it in lead crystal glassware, pipes, cables, make-up, and even in the glass of television and computer screens, where it works to protect viewers from radiation.

Lead contamination is nothing new

Despite the length of time that lead has been used as an additive, there have always been problems associated with exposure to lead. Romans commented on the gloominess and lethargic behavior of those in contact with lead. Ancient Greek physician Dioscorides noted that, “Lead makes the mind give way.” Employers expressed concern about workers having negative reactions to factory lead dust and fumes. Centuries later, parents in the 1800s and early 1900s noticed that children who had been around lead seemed to struggle in school and displayed, nausea, fatigue, irritability, and, in extreme cases, seizures, learning disabilities and even death. It was time to take a look at the harm lead was doing to people.

The dangerous nature of lead in paint was mentioned in a 1904 pamphlet produced by the Sherwin Williams Paint Company, which described lead as “…poisonous in a large degree” for workmen doing the painting and for people living in a home with lead-based paint.

Childhood lead poisoning was first identified in Australia, where scientists noticed that children who had been exposed to lead paint had developed retinitis and ophthalmoplegia (weakness of the eye muscles). Those studies led to the banning of lead paint in Australia in 1914.

Delayed Action in the U.S.

There wasn’t much concern in the United States in the early 1920s, even though it was well established that children could be poisoned by eating foods grown in contaminated soil or by chewing paint. The National Lead Company sent a booklet to thousands of paint stores in 1923. The booklet contained a children’s verse inviting the young reader to “give a party so folks can see happy members of the great Lead family.” A later book geared to children featured the Dutch Boy Paint Company symbol providing information concerning the value of lead-based paints.

By the 1930’s, it was well known that lead was toxic to children, especially those from age 1-3. Those children almost always got sick from eating paint chips peeled from their cribs, toys, and walls in their homes. In 1931, the Children’s Bureau prepared a pamphlet to warn the public of the dangers of lead, and consumers began to ask retailers to use non-toxic paint on items that would come in contact with children.

Despite the scientific information available, many blamed lead poisoning in children on their parents, citing long-held beliefs about sin and the physical results of “immoral” behavior, such as smoking and drinking. Others blamed parents for not watching their children closely enough, or for not keeping their homes sanitary, blaming lead poisoning on poverty or race, rather than on the presence of lead.

By the 1950s, the American Academy of Pediatrics joined with paint companies to push for a voluntary standard for measuring the amount of lead in paint. There was an agreement to require special labeling, but no federal legislation, and the standards were more or less ignored, with the onus of labeling left to cities.

In 1971, President Richard Nixon signed the Lead-Based Paint Poisoning Prevention Act, which restricted the use of lead-based paint in housing built with federal dollars and provided funds to reduce the amount of paint in homes already built. By 1974, dust from lead was mentioned as a cause of lead poisoning, and in 1978, the use of lead paint containing more than 0.06% (by weight of dried product) lead was banned for residential use in the United States in 1978 by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (16 Code of Federal Regulations CFR 1303). The Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act of 2008 changed the cap on lead content from 0.06 percent to .009 percent, the current standard.

In 2008, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development reported that an estimated 38 million homes contain lead, almost 40 percent of all housing.  Statistics show that those homes are more likely to be single-family than multi-family,  inhabited by persons with low income rather than high incomes, housing without government support, and homes more likely owned or rented by African Americans than Caucasians. In many homes, owners cannot afford to have the lead removed or encapsulated to keep it from coming in contact with the residents.

Toledo’s Lead Stats

That statistic holds for the Toledo area, where more than 158,000 housing units were built before 1978, when use of lead paint for residential use was banned. Those houses and apartments most likely to contain lead paint, predominate in 18 ZIP  codes, home to 99.4 percent of Toledo’s population, and 68.5 percent of the Lucas County population. Over twenty seven percent of Toledo’s African-American population test positive for elevated blood levels (twice the state average), and 39 percent of African American children test positive, as compared with 1.3 percent of Caucasian children. Sadly, a 2010 Ohio Department of Health report showed that fewer than 28 percent of Toledo area children in who were mandated to be tested according to state law actually were tested.

Various manners of exposure

There is good reason to be concerned that children are exposed to lead in many ways, including eating paint chips, inhaling lead dust in homes being renovated, drinking water pumped through lead pipes, playing on soil contaminated with lead paint chips or dust or residue from leaded gasoline, playing with toys decorated with lead paint, or eating foods stored in pottery sealed or glazed with lead.  The actual poisoning by lead cannot be seen as it happens, it is often accompanied by these symptoms: irritability or behavior problems, headaches, loss of appetite, weight loss, sluggishness or fatigue, abdominal pain, vomiting or nausea, constipation, pale skin from anemia, muscle and joint weakness or pain, numbness or tingling in the extremities, elevated blood pressure, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorders (ADHD) and lower IQ.

The Ohio Department of Health suggests having children tested if they play with or have access to areas where dyes, electronics, fungicides, lacquers, pipe sealants, shellac, solder and gasoline are stored, or if they have household members who work near those products.

How lead causes damage

If a child is exposed to lead, and if the lead enters the bloodstream, it inhibits the transport of oxygen and calcium and alters nerve transmission in the brain. The lead builds up in the kidneys, bone marrow, liver, even the teeth, and can also alter the secretion of human growth hormone, which can stunt the child’s growth. The gastrointestinal tracts of pregnant women and children can absorb up to 50% of ingested lead, a very serious situation. Even a low level of lead can cause decreased bone and muscle growth, poor muscle coordination, damage to the nervous system and kidneys, developmental delay. High levels of lead concentration can lead to seizures, coma, even death.

In addition to lead’s obvious physical effects on children, there are also serious social effects. Costs for medical treatment can be prohibitive, and the societal costs of the loss of intelligence and decrease of economic productivity are quite serious. A 2002 study by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention found that the economic benefit from the reduction in child lead exposure between 1976 and 1999 ranged from $110 billion to $319 billion. A recent analysis by the World Health Organization suggests that for every $1 spent to reduce lead hazards, there would be a societal benefit of up to $220.

Available Help

Lead poisoning doesn’t have to happen to children in our area. Local and state officials are well aware of the need for more information about the importance of lead testing. Encouraging all parents and caregivers (especially in the 18 High Risk ZIP codes) to do become knowledgable about the dangers of lead and how to find out if their homes might have lead in the paint or pipes.

Attorney Cole and a group of concerned citizens have been working on legislation that they believe would help this dire situation. With Toledoans United for Social Action, TPS, The Cherry Street Legacy Project, the NAACP, representatives of the nursing school at the University of Toledo, ABLE has formed a Toledo Lead Poisoning Prevention Coalition to prepare an ordinance that would require every owner of residential rental property constructed prior to 1978 to have the property inspected for lead hazards. If an inspection reveals the presence of lead, the owner must have the lead hazard corrected before the property can be rented. After the original inspection, the owner must maintain the property in a lead-free condition. The ordinance would further require that every owner of residential rental property constructed  in the City of Toledo prior to 1978 obtain a Certificate of Registration of Lead Safe Residential Rental Property from the Toledo Lucas County Health Department before permitting occupancy of the property.

The Ohio Department of Health ( offers many resources
including the Healthy Homes and Lead Poisoning Prevention Program at
1-877-LEAD-SAFE or 1-614-728-4115
Other resources include The Toledo Lucas County Health Department 419 213-4100 and
The World Health Organization website(

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