Prized for it’s malleability, density, ability to hold pigment and resistance to corrosion, lead was used for a wide range of construction, production and even medicinal purposes throughout the 18th and 19th centuries. Although the health risks of lead were known about as early as Roman times, however its usefulness was deemed to outweigh its dangers and it wasn’t until the 20th century that the governments began to restrict the use of lead. As a result, we live in a world surrounded by lead, and in some circumstances, this can pose a threat to our health. This week, we take a look at four key sources of lead commonly found in Australian homes.
House paint containing high levels of lead was widely sold throughout Australia until the 1970s and as a result, most houses built during or before this period were painted with lead paint. Lead paint is only dangerous when it chips or dusts, so it’s imperative that the paint in older homes is well maintained and covered with a modern paint or sealant to avoid lead exposure.
Fortunately, unlike in the US and Europe, lead plumbing was not a widespread practice in Australia. However, there is a possibility that houses built prior to the 1930s may have some lead piping. A more pressing concern is the use of lead based solder on copper and brass plumbing, which occurred up until 1989. Corrosion could mean this lead leaches into the water it comes into contact with after a prolonged period of time, so there is a risk of lead consumption with first flush water.
Lead paint wasn’t just used on houses. Due to it’s superior pigmentation qualities, ability to speed up the drying process, boost durability, and resist moisture, lead containing paint was used during the late 19th and early 20th centuries on everything from furniture to children’s toys. It’s worth nothing that very old pieces from the 18th and early 19th centuries generally do not contain lead paint, although it is always best to test if you are suspicious. Like with house paint, lead paint on antique furnishings of any sort can be rendered harmless by varnishing or sealing over the lead paint so it cannot chip or dust. When it comes to restoring antique painted furniture from this period, it’s imperative that you wear a dust mask to avoid lead particle inhalation.
Another possible source of lead in the home is in antique pewter table wear. Pewter was an economic alternative to silver and used for hundreds of years until it was replaced by aluminium in the early 20th century. Pewter is an alloy made of tin and lead, but any quality pewter made after the late 18th century is likely to be lead free. If you have pewter serving ware in your family, it’s perfectly harmless as a display piece as the lead only becomes a health hazard if ingested.
Alpha Environmental specialise in environmental site assessments for Melbourne homes and businesses. If you’re concerned that your property may contain some hazardous materials, please don’t hesitate to get in touch with us by calling 9415 8002.