Concerned parent worries about lead in varnish
September 2, 2011 4:29 AM   Subscribe

I've recently ordered a lead testing kit and found lead in the varnish on my child's 'antique' cot (we replaced with a modern one within 24hrs).

I am concerned, though, about the lead in the varnish on our table and chairs.

Family and friends are convinced that this is not a threat because it's not off gassing that's a problem it's the child ingesting chips of paint containing lead, which isn't quite possible with varnished wood. However, my son, at 9 months, whilst not a "sucky" baby is definitely in daily contact with these chairs as he moves about the room and climbs in between them and is bound to give them a suck at sone point.

I'm expecting reactions from "get rid of them now" (approaching my own wishes!) to "I wouldn't worry". What I'm looking for is the general feeling!

Thank you.
posted by dance to Health & Fitness (14 answers total)
I wouldn't worry at all, unless he was chewing or mouthing on the furniture.
posted by 6550 at 4:44 AM on September 2, 2011 [1 favorite]

I wouldn't be concerned. With lead, as with most other things, it's more a question of degree of exposure than anything else.

In the 70s we were all exposed to a lot more lead, because cars were farting the stuff out all the time, and it was all over the place. I can remember using lead fishing weights, and even melting them down to make stuff, and nobody was even slightly concerned (beyond "just don't eat them"). I survived the 70s, maybe minus an IQ point or two, but there you go.

If the varnish is stable and he isn't biting the stuff off with his teeth, leave it. The occasional lick of some olf varnish isn't going to be a measurable part of his overall childhood exposure to lead, even in today's much more safety-conscious world.
posted by le morte de bea arthur at 4:53 AM on September 2, 2011 [2 favorites]

Note: Home test kits for lead are available, but studies suggest that they are not always accurate. Consumers should not rely on these tests before doing renovations or to assure safety.

From the EPA's lead page.

I wouldn't worry at all, unless he was chewing or mouthing on the furniture.

I was a voracious furniture chewer as a child, so that is a real possibility, especially with the cot. So your concerns are valid, but it is hard to know if there is enough of a threat to justify further action. One option is to have your son tested for lead the next time he sees his pediatrician; that would give a definitive answer as to his exposure level and guide any corrective action.
posted by TedW at 4:54 AM on September 2, 2011 [2 favorites]

I lived for most of my first 8 years of life in a house full of stuff like that. Mindfulness about what he's sucking on for lots of time is the key. The thing about the paint chips is that they're being ingested in large quantities.

I'd also consider mentioning it to the pediatrician, just to make yourself feel better.
posted by SMPA at 4:55 AM on September 2, 2011

Talk to your pediatrician - if you're concerned perhaps you could get his blood lead level tested and see if it's elevated at all.
posted by mskyle at 5:30 AM on September 2, 2011 [1 favorite]

Your child's blood lead level, I mean, not the pediatrician's.
posted by mskyle at 5:31 AM on September 2, 2011 [10 favorites]

Your pediatrician can do a simple blood test to check for lead. Why wouldn't this be your first move? Internet strangers saying, "I grew up in a house full of lead paint and I'm fine, don't worry" mean nothing. You're concerned about something that could potentially have a devastating impact on your baby's future.

Call your pediatrician.
posted by Kangaroo at 5:32 AM on September 2, 2011 [1 favorite]

I am an environmental professional, although I am not your environmental professional.

First: good catch on the cot. What type of testing kit were you using? If it was the lead check swabs, the positives are generally pretty reliable as an indication that there is some level of lead in the item tested, but the negatives can be false. So if a lead check swab said there was lead on the cot, I'd trust it; it it said there wasn't lead on the other items you tested, then there probably isn't a LOT of lead, but there still could be some. (At least in the US, the swab was designed to check for lead above 0.5% by weight, but the company was marketing it as a way to check for lead down to 0.09% or so. I know the CPSC had issued warnings about that a few years ago -- not sure if they're still marketing it like that.)

Incidentally, if you're concerned in general and want to run more tests, it might be cheaper (at least on a cost-per-sample basis) to hire a professional with an XRF unit, which can take a crapton of samples in a couple hours and is more accurate than the swabs. Not sure about availability in your part of the world, though.

Your family is correct that lead does not generally off-gas and the primary exposure route is eating paint chips. If the child is actively sucking on an item, that could also be an exposure route. (Lead paint tastes sweet; there's a reason children eat it.)

I agree with everyone above about talking to his pediatrician for a lead test if you're concerned about past exposure. It's a blood test, totally low-key. (In fact, I had one recently for possible occupational exposure. Not a big deal at all.)

However, I would like to point out that if the lead test comes back below background levels, that doesn't mean you don't need to worry about the furniture. It just means he hasn't been exposed yet. So if having the furniture there makes you uncomfortable, is there any reason not to rent a storage unit and store the furniture until you know he's old enough not to suck on it? A cheap IKEA set might be a better way to go for a few years.
posted by pie ninja at 5:43 AM on September 2, 2011 [4 favorites]

As others have suggested, the easiest thing to do is to definitely get a blood test for a check on lead levels and then go from there.
posted by zizzle at 5:44 AM on September 2, 2011

Note to commenters from the US:

In the UK, people don't generally have pediatricians. Under the NHS, everyone has a GP at a medical practice, to whom all non-emergency medical issues are initially referred. The GP then decides whether the case should be referred to a specific specialist at a hospital or whether tests are necessary, and makes all the arrangements. Patients can not generally request specific tests; that's the GPs responsibility.

So by all means ask your GP about this at your child's next visit.
posted by le morte de bea arthur at 5:46 AM on September 2, 2011 [2 favorites]

You say "varnish." If there was lead in your chairs and table it would be in "paint" rather than varnish... varnish is the clear or amber coating that makes the furniture shiny. If your chairs and table aren't painted (they could be painted under varnish) then there isn't anything to worry about.
posted by at 7:28 AM on September 2, 2011

Note:'s comment is wrong. All old varnishes used lead as a dryer. Modern varnishes use cobalt, manganese, zinc, or zirconium in its place. There's nowhere near as much lead in old varnish as in old paint but the amount is easily detectable.

Lead, if immobilized, is pretty darned safe. Of course, it doesn't take much lead at all to retard brain development. This seems like a trivial question: is your child's mental development worth keeping and old table and chairs? Is the furniture really that valuable? Will your child care if, for the first handful of years of his/her life, your dining suite is some card tables?
posted by introp at 7:44 AM on September 2, 2011 [1 favorite]

One issue with the table and chairs will be that scraping them around on the floor will possibly release lead dust (if the paint/varnish has lead), and then Baby crawls on the floor and gets it on his hands, then sucks his fingers. People living in homes with known lead paint are advised to vacuum and then wet-mop frequently, so as to pick up the dust. One other thing you can do to help against lead accumulation is to increase baby's iron stores. Red meat, cooking in cast iron, iron supplements, etc. Our kid tested slightly elevated (but still under the alarm threshold) at age 1. We supplemented his iron. We also found the lead source in our home. It was an antique trinket he had touched but never put in his mouth. We got him retested at age 2 and no lead was detected.
posted by xo at 11:24 AM on September 2, 2011

For that and many reasons, make sure your child has safe toys to chew, and does not chew furniture. Maybe use some lemon pledge or something similar that would taste bad to discourage mouthing. Blood lead testing will give you useful information.
posted by theora55 at 9:40 AM on September 3, 2011

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