Lead is a toxic metal that is common in our lived environment, particularly in paint and soil (which can convert to dust) in older neighborhoods. The presence of lead in water is a growing concern among many people. Lead may also exists in many household items such as dishware, toys, spices, and cosmetics.
This page is written for people looking to test for the presence of lead around them. For information on the chemical and analytical methodologies (aka: the science) behind these testing options, see this page: Methods for detecting lead
Assessing your risk for lead exposure. Many who visit this site are not sure of their exposure to lead or are just learning about lead's presence in their home and/or neighborhood and want to know whether or not they should test for lead. Assessing risk of exposure is subjective, but a few things to know:
- Lead paint was banned in 1978. All houses built before them have a good chance of having lead-based paint.
- Lead-based pipes were banned in 1986 (though regulations that continued to reduce the amount of lead in plumbing have continued even to more recent years)
- Leaded gasoline ended a phased ban in 1995 (lead in gasoline settled in soils; so areas near highways, interstates, and other heavily trafficked areas are likely to have at least some level of lead.)
- Additional sources of lead include: industrial plant emissions, foods, cosmetics, toys, other sources.
For a rudimentary map that shows the risk of your being exposed to lead from the primary sources, click here.
Testing for lead in your body
You can have yourself or a child tested for lead poisoning via a visit to your doctor. This is the primary "monitoring" process set up by the US Public Health System. It requires a blood sample to be taken. There are currently no citizen science approaches to this; it must be done in a professional, medical setting.
Public insurance, like Medicaid, covers for the testing of lead in children across the country. In fact it's required by law. However, there are some state variances in both how this gets implemented and how well it is enforced. Private, commercial insurance - such as through an employer - may or may not cover for lead testing. But obviously you can talk to your doctor to assess the risk and determine whether or not a blood test is warrented.
Testing for lead in your environment
If you want to test for lead, be it in your home or neighborhood, there are a number of options:
- You can contact a professional. This person will come to your home and conduct an assessment.
- You can use a mail-in service. These services typically mail you a sample collection kit which you use. You then mail that sample to a laboratory. The results are sent to you after the lab receives and analyzes your sample.
- You can test yourself at-the-source. These products are less reliable (even assuming you use them correctly). However, they are faster and can be a useful screening method.
The below provides more detail on the best practices, products, and methods. (Please feel free to edit this document to improve it.)
Using a Professional
Using a Private Contractor.
Private contractors do exist for this work. A home inspection and/or assessment -- these are technically different things -- can only legally be done by certified professionals.
More information on this certification, the difference between an inspection and an assessment, what these professionals do, and how to find one in your area can be found on this EPA website. The majority of these assessments are focused on identifying lead coming from paint.
Using your Local Government Services
Every county is required by law to offer lead-testing services. However, counties are not required by law to make these available for free or at a low-price (though most do), nor are they required to conduct a test on any particular timeline (some counties have long backlogs and may even be really hard to navigate bureaucratically). Thus engaging with a county-based service may take quite some time, but it's a good place to start and could work well for you.
Home inspections performed by a government agency typically focus on paint (and dust caused by paint) as paint is the primary source of lead in most homes. The governmental body overseeing this effort in your county is likely in the public health department, in a Healthy Homes department, or something along those lines. Some may test for lead in soil as well if that is a possible source. You should feel free to encourage them to test your soil if they do not proactively offer that as an option.
Testing for lead in water is typically handled by the local water utility; county officials like those described in the above paragraph typically don't test for water even when they make home inspections. Some water utilities are part of the county government. Some are private organizations not connected to government. Most are quasi-governmental, some combination of these two things. Some are big organizations that serve lots of people in urban areas; some rural "utilities" are literally just one volunteer trying to oversee everything. You will have to get to know your local water management system and see what they offer.
Water utilities may have the option for someone to come to your home and conduct the test themselves. If they come to your home, they will likely just be collecting a water sample; the testing will be done in a lab and they will send you the results later. Most water-testing services offered by local water utilities though are mail-in-services, which takes us to our next section.
Mail-in Testing Services
Because professional services can take time and be more expensive and because the test-it-yourself products are not the most reliable, using a mail-in service is a great option.
Some of these are public or university-based. Others are private companies.
Your Local Water Utility. As described in the above "Using Your Local Government" section, your county is required by law to offer a lead-in-water testing service. Most of these are mail-in. That is: They mail you a bottle with instructions on how to fill that bottle with water. You then mail it to a lab (hopefully they include a pre-paid shipping box and label). You get your results sent to you at a later date.
Buying Directly from a Lab There may be a private lab near you that offers water analysis. These labs are likely for-profit organizations that primarily work with large industrial clients or organizations that are working in bulk. However, it's possible that they can handle working with an individual as well. To find a lab near you, search for "water testing labs in my area" or something like that in your search engine.
Private Companies. A number of organizations, both for-profit and non-profit, exist to offer a more consumer-oriented option. These typically exist as middle-men; the testing is still done by a laboratory. However they are designed to serve "consumers" whereas most labs are designed serve large industrial organizations.
Non-profit options may vary by location; and national non-profit programs devoted to this tend to come and go and/or be targeted to particular individuals. For example, Healthy Babies Bright Futures allows anyone to order a lead-in-water-testing kit and ask for a donation on a sliding scale.
A few for-profit companies exist as well and can be great options for those who can afford them. For example, Tap Score is a series of products offered by the company Simple Water. They offer both city water and well water options; they offer tests specific to lead but also for other contaminants.
Academia. Some area colleges and universities partner work with their local neighborhoods and make water testing available, since the technology to do the testing does exist in most college and university chemistry departments. See this Partnering with a local college for environmental testing page for more information on how to explore this option.
...for Paint or Surfaces
There are fewer mail-in options for paint. Part of this is because the sampling methodology for paint is a bit more technical in nature and -- because you're scraping paint from a wall onto a piece of paper -- the sample collection process may actually increase exposure. (Note: Many of these services do have a disclaimer that you should not do the paint sample collection yourself if you are pregnant.)
A search online will pull up a few options. Your author here (hi! this is Read) does not have any experience with these services. Please feel free to comment below or edit this document if you do.
"Surfaces" here include other solid surfaces. For example, some people want to test toys, dishware, or other items for lead. Most of the time, what you're really testing for is lead in the paint that covers these items. The above information applies, but scraping paint off of these may be more difficult. Mail-in-services like that described aboe are likely not a great option for you.
Mail-in services for lead-in-soil testing are commonly used. A number of institutions, particularly Academic institutions, allow you to mail in a sample of soil. They conduct the analysis and then email you the results.
The sample collection process (that is: getting the soil in a bag or something before you send it off) is fairly straightforward. With that said, some thought should be put into the collection process to ensure you can trust your results. For example, even if you have a big urban garden, you are only mailing off a small sample. So you have to be sure to collect that sample properly.
You may want to buy a Soil Sampling Kit that includes all the tools needed to collect soil (bucket, shovel, bags, bowl for mixing, etc) as well as instructions on how to collect that sample and then how to mail that sample for the appropriate test (in this case: to test for lead). You may use the kit and then send off the soil sample to a lab of your own choosing.
There are a number of labs that offer consumer-oriented (versus industry-focused) soil testing. These include:
- University of Delaware College of Agriculture and Natural Resources
- K-State Soil Testing Lab at Kansas State University
- University of Massachusetts, Amherst Soil and Plant Tissue Testing Laboratory
- Penn State University
- Colorado State University
- Cornell University (choose “Environmental Analysis following US EPA SW-846”)
- Purdue University
More information on soil testing can be found at: https://publiclab.org/notes/DanielleS/03-10-2019/soil-testing-for-contaminants-how-to-and-things-to-consider
There are commercial products available online that mirror the mail-in-service for water: A sample collection kit is sent to you; you collect a sample -- in this case, wiping a surface with the wipes included -- and then mail the sample into a lab which analyzes the results.
At-Home Testing Options (DIY + Commercial Products)
...portable XRF Analyzers
These are the same tool used by home inspectors. They are available for purchase, new and used. Prices vary but they can be a few thousand dollars or ten thousand dollars. In some areas, it's possible to rent the pXRF.
...Low-cost Commercial Products
There are no truly free, "do-it-yourself (DIY)" approaches to testing for lead currently known to the Public Lab community. (Please comment below or edit this page if you know of anything!) Therefore, the low-cost approaches to testing and screening for lead require the use of commercial products which are relatively low-cost and widely available online and in department stores.
The reliability of these commercial products is a common discussion. Indeed, most of them have not been formally evaluated (and have mixed reviews on Amazon). Categorically, the testing methodology (colorimetry) lends itself towards high false-positives when being used to test for lead. Further, their sensitivity (ability to detect low amounts of lead) has also been questioned.
The EPA has not validated any product fully; though two are validated for negative results.
One formal evaluation of one product highlights the reliability issues present across these products. Formal Study: Reliability of spot test kits for detecting lead in household dust (2007) (Note: This study is on the product LeadCheck Swabs made at the time by Hybrivet. Hybrivet was purchased by 3M in 2011.)
The LeadCheck Swabs produced a false negative rate of 64% (95% confidence interval: 55%, 72%). The likelihood of a swab producing a false negative depended on substrate (painted or non-painted) and surface type (floor or sill)...LeadCheck Swabs do not reliably detect levels of lead in dust above 40 μg/ft2 using published methods under field conditions. Further research into alternate methodologies and interpretation guidance is needed to determine whether the swabs can be appropriately used by consumers and others to test homes for lead dust hazards. (emphasis added)
Still, one or more of these products may be a useful screening option in certain situations.
Specific product information and more discussion on their reliability can be found here: Evaluating Low Cost Lead Screening Products
This page is written for people looking to test for the presence of lead around them. Other key pages related to lead and testing that might be useful: