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Despite its toxic reputation, lead has been used in paint for hundreds of years because it is the most effective way to make the paint mildew resistant and anti-corrosive, easier to apply, faster drying and more brightly colored. It is also less expensive than other options. However, the risks behind this quietly creeping hazard outweigh its economic and aesthetic value.
The dangers of lead exposure have been known for more than 300 years. Benjamin Franklin and Charles Dickens both wrote essays about the devastating effects of lead poisoning. Researchers studying bone fragments have determined that lead poisoning was the cause of Ludwig von Beethoven's physical and mental illness from the time he was in his teens, leading eventually to his death. Some historians believe that lead poisoning is responsible for the fall of the Roman Empire, having discovered evidence that Rome\'s upper classes suffered symptoms consistent with lead poisoning; they used lead to sweeten their food, collect their water, and prevent their wine from turning into vinegar. The Germans banned Roman wine and food imports in the 1600s for this very reason.
Researchers speculate that the sweet taste of lead is the very reason why young children are likely to eat paint chips and gnaw on protruding painted surfaces, putting them at very high risk for poisoning. It was once thought that the way they got poisoned was mostly by this eating and gnawing at paint chips, but in reality it is the inhalation and ingestion of lead dust through general hand-to-mouth contact. This dust can be released into the air by home remodeling or painting, or from deteriorated paint. Because of this, maintenance and renovation of homes and other structures can present a health problem for people if any deteriorated paint is not stabilized. Extra precautions need to be taken when preparing to repaint a home or business to avoid lead poisoning.
While many other industrialized countries banned the use of lead paint in homes, schools, and hospitals early in the 20th century, the United States didn't begin doing so until 1970. Therefore, it is still a hazard found in older houses and apartments in this country, victimizing the youngest and most vulnerable members of the population. It can cause nervous system damage, stunted growth, hearing loss, and delayed development. It also affects every organ system of the body, but primarily the kidneys, causing extensive kidney damage. It can also damage the reproductive systems of both women and men.
Additionally, recent news has disclosed that many toys produced in China for export contain lead paint. While China has stricter regulations prohibiting lead paint use in toy production than the United States does, there is little enforcement. The significant pressure put on the manufacturers to keep costs down has driven many to use the less expensive option offered by lead paint with little risk of getting caught.
Different regulations have been put into place dealing with lead paint. There is a directive controlling lead paint use in the European Union. The United States government put into place the Consumer Product Safety Commission which bans lead paint.
Although children are often thought of as the population most at risk for lead poisoning, because of the appeal of lead-painted surfaces and because of the proliferation of lead in toys that are imported from China and other countries, occupational and environmental exposure through the use of lead and lead paint continues to be an issue of concern for adults as well. In the United States, leaded paint is used as a protective agent on metal bridges and bridge components, road signs, and road markings. Consequently, workers are still exposed to the toxic effects of leaded paint.
While litigation has been attempted to hold the companies producing leaded paint responsible for the suffering of the end users, none have been successful. It is apparent that more restrictive legislation will be required to protect the environment and quality of life for the many people exposed to lead paint on a daily basis.