Published March 29, 2013
If you're eating an organic diet and trying to avoid pesticides and other nasty chemicals in your home, it's unnerving to learn that hidden contaminants, such as lead, might still be lurking in your household.
A recent study published in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives suggests that lead, found in a disturbingly high number of foods and consumer products, could cause hearing loss.
Researchers analyzed the blood lead levels of nearly 3,700 adults between the ages of 20 and 69, and found that hearing loss increased in step with blood lead levels, regardless of where people worked or any recreational exposures to loud noises.
Lead is a toxic metal with a long legacy of use in pesticides, paints, and gasoline. And although the federal government has banned or severely restricted its use in those applications, the metal is still used with abandon in cheap consumer goods.
Yet, owing to its role in Alzheimer's disease, heart disease, high blood pressure, and kidney failure, as well as certain forms of cancer, major medical and public health organizations around the world have stated that there is no safe level of lead exposure.
Protect yourself against the metal's toxic effects by knowing where it's most likely to crop up in your home. Old lead paint and contaminated soil remain your two largest sources of exposure, but here are six other unexpected places where you might unknowingly be exposed to lead, along with concrete steps to avoid it.
The Center for Environmental Health, a nonprofit consumer advocacy group, has tested purses for lead twice in the past five years and found the metal in shockingly high levels. One high-end designer wallet contained 58,700 parts per million (ppm) lead, 195 times higher than the state of California's limit on lead in consumer products.
The Fix: Stick with real leather, cotton, or canvas purses, advises the Center for Environmental Health. Their tests on leather purses rarely revealed high lead levels.
Your Apple Juice
For nearly a century, farmers doused fruit and other crops with pesticides made with lead and arsenic. Those pesticides were banned in the 1950s, but the heavy metals linger. Consumers Union, the publishers of Consumer Reports magazine, recently tested 88 samples of apple and grape juice and found that 25% exceeded the Food and Drug Administration's (FDA's) voluntary limit of 5 parts per billion (ppb) in bottled water.
The Fix: Eat whole fruits. Unfortunately, even juices from organic apples have the potential to be contaminated with now-banned lead-based pesticides.
Your Water Faucet
Even though the Environmental Protection Agency has a zero-tolerance policy on lead in water, homes built before 1986 are likely to have pipes that contain lead, which can migrate into drinking water. And newer homes aren't immune. Lead is found at highest levels in brass or chrome-plated brass faucets, the agency warns.
The Fix: Get your water tested and get a filter if needed. You can find someone to test your water for lead at www.epa.gov/lead. To find a filter, check the EWG's Water Filter Buying Guide.
According to a 2009 study on lipstick conducted by the FDA, all of the 22 samples tested contained lead. Though the amounts are small, they can have a big impact on the long-term health of women who apply lipstick every day (and sometimes multiple times per day). The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics has found that lead can be a contaminant of petroleum-based ingredients or of minerals, such as zinc oxide or titanium dioxide.
The Fix: Do some online research before you buy your next tube. The Environmental Working Group's Skin Deep cosmetic database flags products that contain ingredients with the potential to be contaminated with lead.
Lead is used as a stabilizer that keeps vinyl, a form of plastic, from breaking down. But it isn't bound to the plastic, so as that material ages, lead migrates out and attaches to dust, which you inhale. In 2008, one study on vinyl tile flooring found that 74 percent of samples contained detectable levels of lead.
The Fix: Consider renovations, particularly if you have young children who crawl around on floors in the house. Linoleum, cork, bamboo, and hardwood are all safe choices.