Category Archives: warning

Lead Paint Mania – Are we going Overboard?

Oldtimer Speaks Out Says This: 

Yes! We are Paranoid

I’ve been watching with interest the Toy recalls.   I think we are overdosing with fear over very little risk.   Let me say up front, we should not tolerate toys that have any lead in their parts or paint but I think the correct reaction is to remove them from the shelves, ship them back to the manufacturer at their expense and ban further shipments from that manufacturer until we are satisfied they have changed their paints… but no recall unless there are actual lead parts in place and/or the paint is contaminated to some very high level.   Most toys in these recalls have very little.

I’ve had considerable exposure to hazardous materials over my 70 years and if you believed the hype over some of these materials, I should not be here today.   My point is not that these materials are not dangerous – they are dangerous – but that we should use some common sense for the handling of the materials already in place from years ago and for the handling of materials that are in minuscule quantities found in products being sold.

My experiences with lead:

As a 70 year old I’ve had my share of lead contamination in my life.  I can recall helping my dad scrape the chalky white paint from the sides of our house and a couple of rental houses  several times when I was a youngster.   White paint was white in those days due to the deliberate use of lead as a whitener and our interior walls, trim and exterior walls were all made with leaded paint.  Lead oxidizes as it ages to a nice white color.  Sometimes the paint was heated with blowtorches and specialized irons to soften it.  Other times it was power or hand sanded or simply chiseled.  The idea was to get as much as possible off the walls to get an even coat of more leaded paint.  As a result, we and the ground around us would end up chalky white.

I’ve carried and crushed lead pellets in my mouth, crimped fishing weights with my teeth and used highly leaded paint for many toy projects.  It was common for all sorts of toys to have a large content of lead or be entirely made of lead.   Pot metal, although mostly zinc, also had a high content of lead.   Many types of toy jewelry and badges/toy cars, weights were made of almost pure lead.   Most of this activity was about 60 years ago.

I have done a lot of soldering using tin/lead alloys for the solder.   It was the best all around product and part of the procedure was to draw the solder wire through your mouth to straighten it, as usually both hands were full.  I’ve worked in labs with liquid solder for floating circuit boards to get a quick even solder.   All the electrical components came tinned with leaded solder.

 I’m still here!  After all that, I managed to get a 3.8 GPA in a masters program at Georgia Tech after a 3.4 GPA in the undergraduate program (4.0 max scale).   If you’ve looked at my Quantum Weird blog, you may note that I still have some intelligence left.

I’m fully aware that lead is a dangerous metal and also aware that it is thought to be particularly dangerous to the developing child.   I’m sure that some are more sensitive to the effects than others.   All I’m saying is that we should indeed ban it for all painting purposes and for all children’s toys, but we should also not panic and throw away a toy just because it has some minuscule amount of lead content in its paint.  It is my opinion that the collective amount of lead in the paint of a small toy is unlikely to be of any danger at all, even if completely licked/chewed off and eaten.  Don’t faint!  I’m saying our recalls are too strict.

My experiences with mercury: 

As a child around the ages of 10 to 14 it was common play among us boys to spring for a mercury thermometer (about 10 cents) and break the bulb to get a few drops of the liquid metal.   Not only was it fun to watch it roll around in the palm of your hand, it was well known that if you coated a coin in the mercury, it would be exceptionally shiny.  Part of the procedure we all knew was to pop the mercury coated coin in our mouth and thoroughly swab the mercury around the coin between tongue and cheek for hours on end.    I once had several going at one time.   Most of this activity was about 60 years ago, concurrent with my heavy lead exposure.  No apparent harm done.

Later when I worked at a large aircraft company, I worked in the calibration laboratory which, among other things, calibrated pressure gages using mercury tubes to measure the pressure.   We had tubes of about 1/2 inch diameter that ran in a glass u-tube in two columns about 16 feet in height.  It was a common accident to apply too much pressure and blow the mercury out of the tubes or perhaps to accidentally break the tube. 

The result was large quantities of mercury pooling in various corners of the laboratory.  We would sweep it into pools and try to collect it on thin sheets of plastic and finally pour it back into a bottle of some sort.  You could move a cabinet and find a pool of mercury that had been in our tightly enclosed laboratory for years.  We kept many pounds of mercury in our cabinets for refills.   One technician actually used a vacuum cleaner that he borrowed from the janitor to clean up a large quantity of mercury.    The cleaner fell apart because the pot metal for the housing deteriorated from the mercury exposure.   All this was some 40 to 50 years ago.

I’m still here! I have no ill effects resulting from this heavy mercury exposure.

I have seen news items where a small mercury thermometer was broken and the result was the complete evacuation of an entire multi-story business building.   What a waste.  We need to be realistic as to the quantities involved and the ultimate risk to our health.  Some common sense needs to be used.  Mercury should not be allowed in the presence of children, but to post elaborate disposal methods for fluorescent lights and the handling of broken ones is a bit too much.    

My experience with asbestos:

As a child we had no gas appliances.   Early on, we cooked with wood and heated with wood or, most often, coal.  The pot belly stove used for heating our side of the duplex where we first lived in Marietta in the 1940’s was surrounded on 3 sides with large panels of asbestos in a mat like form.  These were 3 by 5 foot sheets of asbestos tacked to the walls to protect the nook the stove was positioned in.   Not painted, not protected in any way.  

Later when the gas company brought gas to our neighborhood, the coal burning stove was removed and the space was used for storage or sometimes for a washing machine for those with that kind of money.    The asbestos stayed in that corner for more than 10 years before I removed it by peeling it off with a flat iron pry bar.  It came off in chunks and clouds of dust.   That was about 40 years ago.  Altogether I removed about 18 sheets of the stuff from various houses.    No masks, no special protection.

In addition, the stack from the coal stove and later the floor furnace was wrapped in asbestos tape.  Later removed by me or sometimes covered with metal foil. 

My biggest exposure was when I dismantled a country kitchen in an old cafe for my father-in-law.   This involved removing asbestos sheeting from all four walls and the ceiling of the kitchen.  We are talking about 8 ft high walls around a 12 x 12 foot room.   I think this was about 50 years ago.  No masks no protection, not even a vent fan and the dust so thick it was hard to see.

I won’t even guess at how many asbestos siding shingles (the hard brittle stuff), roofing shingles and floor tiles I’ve removed in my lifetime. 

I’m still here!  No breathing problems and no symptoms.   Years after those days I was running 10 miles a day, enough days to total 2000 miles in one year.   If my knees were better I would still be running.

I’m just doing what my blog title says:  Oldtimer Speaks Out.   I’m only saying we don’t need to panic every time we hear one of these materials mentioned.  We don’t need to run to the EPA when a thermometer gets broken or needs to be discarded.  We don’t need to call the government to find out how to dispose of a fluorescent bulb.  We don’t need a special suit to replace an old asbestos floor tile.   Just common sense and, hopefully, an appropriate face mask.  

The biggest problem with lead is with small children who are unsupervised with uncaring parents who allow them to teeth on lead pained trim, or provide them with lead filled toys to mouth around or possibly swallow.   The biggest problem with mercury is keeping it out of the hands of children.  The biggest problem with asbestos is for those working in the industry where it is installed or removed.  These people need to be protected.  

I’ll leave you with a picture of me taken today in which I spent the day immersed in silica dust which is yet another hazardous material that I’ve been routinely exposed to throughout my lifetime.   I do not have that much gray hair!  That dust around my nose is drywall dust from sanding dried joint compound.  The glasses are so covered I cannot see through them.   My hair and mustache are completely caked.   If this column closes in the next week or so, you can quote me as having those famous last words.   “Doesn’t bother me”.

Me covered in drywall dust

Dusty Me


The can says:  “Warning!  Toxic – Harmful by inhalation – (Contains Crystalline Silica).

 (The small print says this: “A single short term exposure to joint compound and joint compound dust presents little or no hazard”.     Now which is it?  Am I a gonner?

I’m still here!  So far anyway.