Environmental Hazards: Close-to-Home

The snow is already beginning to melt, and we can see the first spikes of spring ephemerals like snowdrops and crocus poking through the snow. Having spent the short days of winter cooped up indoors, many people are pleased to feel the days getting perceptibly longer. As we cross the thresholds of our respective houses out into this warming world, we transition between two very distinct sorts of environments: one familiar, consistent, and controlled, the other unpredictable, varied, and sometimes even frightening. Indeed, many hazards exist outside of our home environments in the form of environmental pollutants. Pollution in our environs can sicken, poison, or kill, so it’s important to be aware of potentially toxic substances in the areas we frequent.

Today let’s take some time to discuss just one of these contaminants and where it can be found both outdoors in the wider world, as well as within our homes, and what we can do to protect ourselves from coming into contact with it.

Lead is chemical element number 82 and is symbolized as Pb in chemical notation. Unlike other elements such as Oxygen (O), Carbon (C), and Calcium (Ca), there is no functional purpose for Pb within a human body. In fact, no safe level of lead in a human body has been discovered. Worldwide, lead is a huge health threat, and this persistent pollutant exists in prevalence in urban areas of the United States.

Let’s take a look at how we can keep Pb out of our bodies. To know that, we need to know where it’s likely to be. Thankfully, several legislative acts have been passed in the past, limiting the number of products which can contain lead. Prior to these provisions, Pb was commonly included in products such as paint,¬† gasoline, and plumbing. Because of its inclusion in these and other products, Pb became widely dispersed in urban soils. However, this wide dispersion also means that, while lead can be detected at higher levels in urban soils than in rural soils, the concentration is still much lower than in other pockets in the urban environment.

One particularly persistent pocket of Pb right under many of our noses is the paint in our homes. If your home was constructed or renovated before 1978, the paint in your home may be lead-based. This means that any paint chips or dust originating in your home are likely to be enriched in lead as well. Rather than being alarmed by this information, however, you should take action: visit the Allegheny Lead Safe Homes Program website for more information. Furthermore, if you suspect that the soil on your property is contaminated, you should contact a soil testing lab like the one at Allegheny County Conservation District.

So how can we best protect ourselves from Pb, given its ubiquity? Limit your exposure by understanding how lead could potentially contaminate your person; Pb most commonly enters the human body through ingestion, inhalation, or dermal exposure. So in order to protect yourself, be sure to wear work gloves, and some sort of dust mask or respiratory protection during any earthmoving, renovation, or demolition events on your property. Additionally, frequently wet-mopping your home to reduce dust can mitigate this threat while you take other steps. Other organizations, like Get the Lead Out, Pittsburgh are working to provide resources to residents at risk of Pb contamination.

Keep an eye out for more info on our website as Grounded works toward addressing issues of environmental health, vacant land, and community wellbeing in Allegheny County.

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