Should You Raise Your Kids in an Old House?

Promo image. Dutch Boy paint ad, from when lead was wonderful!

When TreeHugger Katherine wrote a recent post on saving money, she included living in an old house for all the reasons that I have promoted old houses: they are in the right place (you can walk to everything), shaded by trees, often cheaper and have “long finished off-gassing noxious chemicals.” They were designed before air conditioning so are usually cool in summer thanks to cross-ventilation and thick masonry walls. Then a commenter noted:

Living in an old house is a big mistake especially if you have young kids. Lead poisoning is 100% ensured. Golden rule should be nothing before 1982.

As a past president of the Architectural Conservancy of Ontario who spent years fighting to preserve old houses and buildings, and who, when I was an architect renovated many old buildings, I will say flat out: This is not true.

my old house

Lloyd Alter/ My old house, dripping leaded paint chips into the garden, pre-renovation/CC BY 2.0

The Truth About Lead

Lead is dangerous, and can cause serious health problems, especially to children and pregnant women. It causes “cognitive impairment”, measurable by reduction in IQ. Lead paint has been a serious problem in poorly maintained housing because old paint flakes and chips are yummy and sweet; that is why lead acetate used to be called “sugar of lead.” The World Health Organization says that “the cost of replacing lead paint means that people living in older, poorly-maintained housing are particularly at risk, and this disproportionately affects economically-deprived communities.”

But it is mostly a problem if the paint is deteriorating, peeling and flaking; kids tend not to chew on window frames. (They used to chew on tasty lead-painted cribs). If the paint is in good shape or the house has been repainted since 1978 where the lead paint is encapsulated in latex paint, then it is not a serious problem. It is also not the only source of lead that our kids ingest or inhale.

lead remediation

© Lead Exposure in Children: Prevention, Detection, and Management

Kids still get lead from other sources; chewing on old toys or tracking in dust from outside, where soil is contaminated by paint, tetraethyl lead from gasoline, or from industrial sources -- a good reason to take off your shoes when you come inside. And of course, as we learned from Flint, plumbing can be a problem.As one study noted, there are a number of sources and things that people should do to reduce exposure.

If one is planning a renovation, it’s another story. Since 2010 there are strict rules on how renovation and repair should be done in the USA, using certified and trained workers and firms.

lead concentration

CDC/Public Domain

It is also worth noting that the amount of lead in kids’ blood has been dramatically reduced since lead was removed from gasoline; everyone inhaled that, but the poor were particularly susceptible because planners tended to drive the highways through where poor people lived. Lead paint was (and remains) a problem, but never as big as gasoline, where lead was essentially burned and released into the air. So where lead in kids’ bloodstreams is down 75 percent in the USA, in Venezuela, where lead was not removed from gas until 1999, “a recent report found 63 percent of newborn children with blood-lead levels in excess of the so-called safe levels promulgated by the US government.”

Old Houses May Be Healthier

In many ways, old houses may be healthier than those built in the 80s and 90s, which are full of plastic carpets, flooring and upholstery that are drying out and leaching phthalates, flame retardants and, yes, stabilizers like lead and cadmium. It’s why when we talk about healthy houses today, there are lists of chemicals and materials that shouldn’t be used, and many of them didn’t exist when old houses were built. In addition, old houses often don’t have forced air heating, moving all that dust around from room to room.

There are, as usual, two sides to this story; of course, lead and asbestos are in old houses, but we know about them and how to deal with them and if they are encapsulated they are unlikely to hurt anyone. With new houses, we have traded them for a whole list of other dangers, and sealed up houses much tighter so that they can get nicely concentrated.


Formaldehyde facts/Screen capture

The lead industry fought its removal for decades, insisting it was safe when they knew it wasn’t; the flame retardant and formaldehyde industries are doing the same thing now. So it is a fallacy to assume that houses built after lead paint was banned are any safer than those built before; we are likely just trading poisons.

As the National Trust for Historic Preservation notes, we know what to do.

Historic buildings can be made lead-safe while preserving their significant architectural features. Through simple maintenance, inexpensive materials, and lead-safe renovation techniques, the integrity of historic places can be ensured. Using conscientious work protocols regarding lead paint, older and historic buildings can be safe, healthy places to live and work.