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Get the lead out

By Suzanne Elston

Known as the father of all metals, lead has been used by humanity for more than 8,000 years. For at least half of that time, health professionals have warned about the potential health impacts of lead exposure.

Lead is a neurological toxin that can have serious developmental and cognitive effects. There is virtually no way to flush it out of the system once it has entered the human body.

“Lead moves us down the stupid scale and doesn’t let us come back,” said Stephen Collette, an environmental building consultant and certified building biologist.

According to Health Canada, “No safe level of exposure of lead has been identified. Exposure to even small amounts of lead can be harmful, especially to infants, young children and pregnant women.”

“Children at are greatest risk because their immune systems are not yet developed,” said Collette. “Children are also more likely to be exposed because they are more likely to mouth elements containing lead, such as toys and painted wood.”

Canada banned the use of lead as a gasoline additive in 1990. Paint manufacturers voluntary phased out the use of lead in paint by the end of the 1990s. Despite this, lead persists in our environment and in our homes.

Collette said the biggest concern is homes built before the 1980s. The primary sources of contamination are old paint, lead pipes and lead flux used to solder copper pipes.

“If it was built before 1980, then it most likely contains lead,” he said.
Collette said concerns about energy efficiency are driving renovations of older homes, which is disturbing lead paint.

“We are so focused on saving energy that we forgot that houses are about creating a healthy environment to live in,” he said. “Why are you paying for something that is making you sick?”

Where to find it

  • Drinking water
  • Plastics
  • Costume jewelry
  • Children’s toys
  • Yards and playgrounds
  • Leaded crystal and ceramic pottery
  • Candles
  • Painted surfaces (prior to 2000)
  • Folk remedies
  • Greta and Azarcon
  • Ba-baw-san (herbal remedy)
  • Daw Tway (digestive aid)

How to make your home lead-safe


  • Keep your home clean and dust-free.
  • Wipe up paint chips or visible dust with a damp cloth.
  • Wash children’s hands, bottles and toys frequently.
  • Remove outdoors shoes and wash hands after playing outdoors.


  • Paint over old surfaces.
  • Use heat guns (on low setting), natural-based chemical strippers and infrared strippers.
  • Caution: Don’t sand paint — it volatizes the lead.

Toys and costume jewelry:

  • Rub against a piece of white paper. If leaves a black mark, it contains lead.


  • Flush your system by letting the water run if it has been sitting in the pipes for more than six hours (overnight). Flush with cold water for one to two minutes.

Symptoms of lead exposure

According to Health Canada, exposure to lead can cause a variety of symptoms, including:

Short-term exposure

  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Convulsions
  • Coma
  • Death

Long-term exposure

  • Anemia
  • Neurological damage to the brain and nervous system
  • Appetite loss
  • Abdominal pain
  • Constipation
  • Fatigue
  • Sleeplessness
  • Irritability
  • Headache
  • Aggressive behaviour

Lead, ancient history and the fall of the Roman Empire

Roman physicians warned of dangers of lead poisoning, but their concern was all but ignored due to its widespread use. Many modern historians believe that lead poisoning was a major factor in the fall of the Roman Empire:

  • Lead was used extensively for lining baths and making water pipes.
  • The modern day word “plumber” takes it root from the Latin word “plumbum” meaning lead.
  • Wine was boiled in lead-lined pots or copper kettles to sweeten the wine and improve its flavour.
  • Lead enhanced an estimated one-fifth of the 450 recipes in the Roman Apician Cookbook and was also used in pewter cups, serving plates, wine goblets and pots and pans.
  • Lead was the primary ingredient in face powers, rouges and mascaras.
  • Lead was used as pigment in many paints and gave rise to the phase “crazy as a painter” – referring to the demented behaviour of lead-poisoned painters.
  • Lead intoxication known as “saturnine” takes its name from the Roman god Saturn – a demonic, sluggish figure who ate his own children.
  • The Romans associated lead exposure with a variety illnesses and sterility which plagued late Roman society, including Caesar Augustus.

For more information:

Health Canada – www.hc-sc.gc.ca
U.S. EPA – www.epa.gov/lead
Lead-Free kids – www.leadfreekids.org

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