6 Sneaky Sources of Lead

This toxic heavy metal may be gone from our gasoline, but it's still lurking in other household goods.

March 12, 2013

Is your tap contaminating your tap water with lead?

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, could still threaten you with long-term health problems. 


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 be linked to hearing loss. The 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, every major medical and public health organization in the world has admitted that there is no safe level of exposure to lead.

So the best way to protect yourself against the heavy metal's toxic effects is to know 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 some ways to avoid it.

Your Purse

The Culprit: Red and yellow paints used to color synthetic leather bags

The Center for Environmental Health, a nonprofit consumer advocacy group, has tested purses for lead twice in the past five years and found it at shockingly high levels. One $200 high-end designer wallet tested 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 Center for Environmental Health. Their tests on leather purses rarely revealed high lead levels.

Why You Should Never Buy a Yellow Purse

Your Apple Juice

The Culprit: Lead-based pesticides

For nearly a century, farmers doused fruit and other crops with pesticides made with lead and arsenic, and even though those pesticides were banned in the 1950s, the heavy metals linger, binding to soil and getting absorbed by the crops that grow in it. Consumers Union, the publishers of Consumer Reports magazine, recently tested 88 samples of apple and grape juice and found that 25 percent exceeded the Food and Drug Administration's (FDA's) voluntary limit of 5 parts per billion (ppb) in bottled water (the Environmental Protection Agency has mandated a limit of zero for lead in drinking water).

The Fix: Eat whole fruits. Unfortunately, juices from both organic and chemically grown apples have the potential to be contaminated with now-banned lead-based pesticides, but you'll be exposed to much lower levels if you eat whole fruits, rather than drinking the juice—there are roughly three to four apples in an 8-ounce glass.

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Your Water

The Culprit: Your faucet

Even though the Environmental Protection Agency has set a zero-tolerance policy on lead in water, older homes built before 1986 are likely to have pipes that contain lead, which can migrate into drinking water. And newer homes aren't immune. Ironically, the agency hasn't taken steps to control how much lead is used to make the faucets your drinking water comes out of, and those can legally contain up to 8 percent lead, even if they're labeled "lead free." Lead is found at highest levels in brass or chrome-plated brass faucets, the agency has found.

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/. If the test reveals that your drinking water does contain lead, buy a filter certified to remove it. You can find one at the Environmental Working Group's new Water Filter Buying Guide.

Your Lipstick

The Culprit: Possibly colorants, but it may also be a contaminant of other ingredients

According to a 2009 study conducted by the FDA, every one of 22 lipstick samples tested contained lead, ranging from 0.9 ppm to 3.06 ppm. 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 agency's weak regulations for cosmetics allow up to 20 ppm lead in cosmetic colorants, but that doesn't account for other potential sources. The Campaign for Safe Cosmetic 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 of lipstick. The Environmental Working Group's Skin Deep cosmetic database flags products that contain ingredients with the potential to be contaminated with lead.

FDA Finds Lead in Lipstick, But Says It's Safe

Your Flooring

The Culprit: Vinyl tiles

Lead is used as a stabilizer that keeps vinyl, a form of plastic, from breaking down. The problem is it isn't bound to the plastic, so as the plastic ages, lead migrates out and attaches to dust, which you inhale. In 2008, the Michigan-based Ecology Center tested 39 samples of vinyl tile flooring and found that 74 percent of them contained detectable levels of lead, with some samples reaching 1,900 ppm.

The Fix: Consider renovations, particularly if you have young children who crawl around on floors in the house. Linoleum, cork, bamboo, and hardwood all tested free of lead in the Ecology Center's tests, and even vinyl sheet flooring, as opposed to individual tiles, was relatively free of lead (just 2 percent of 731 samples tested contained it).

Your Eggs

The Culprit: Lead-contaminated soil

It turns out that lead-contaminated soil can contaminate eggs laid by backyard hens just as easily as it can contaminate the veggies grown in it. In late 2012, a research scientist with New York's State Health Department gathered 58 eggs from chickens living in New York City community gardens, and, sadly, 28 of them contained concerning levels of lead, ranging from 10 to more than 100 ppb. The chickens' owners were all unaware of the contamination, too. Though this is a minor source of lead in the grand scheme of things, it's concerning, particularly if you're a real locavore committed to eating fresh eggs from your backyard or a neighbor's.

The Fix: If you're a backyard-chicken owner, get your soil tested. Contact your local Cooperative Extension Service to find out how to get one done quickly where you live.