Dear Dr. Toni,
I have been stripping lead based paint off of old (very old) wood planks for a project I am doing. Now I'm worried about lead poisoning. Can I get it from breathing in fumes and paint dust? How can I know?
Yes, lead poisoning occurs after exposure in the environment and lead is not biodegradable. Old paints, water pipes and even dishes can contain lead and may pose a health hazard from breathing in lead dust, drinking water from lead based pipes or ingesting it. The accumulation of lead is gradual and symptoms might include muscle weakness, headache, memory loss, pain or tingling of the extremities and digestive problems. Children are more susceptible and can have weight loss, irritability, anemia and vomiting.
Since you are working with old paint on your project, you should have a blood test to detect lead poisoning. Levels are measured in micrograms per deciliter (mcg/dL) and any level of 10 or higher is a problem. Higher levels (can go above 70) can be a medical emergency.
The first treatment for mild lead poisoning is to stop the exposure. Don't remove lead paint by sanding because it creates small particles that can be ingested or inhaled. Heat guns or open flame torches create the same problem. Don't eat where lead dust might be present and wear protective clothing and leave the clothes at the job site.
For high levels or symptoms, the treatment is chelation therapy, which binds with the heavy metal and removes it through the urine. Multiple treatments may be needed and therapy might not reverse damage that has already occurred so go get that blood test and see where you stand.