Ask Tamara: How do you get lead dust out of laundry?

AskTamaraMonday, September 7, 2015

“Ask Tamara”

Question from Liz: “What’s the best way to wash clothing that could be contaminated with lead dust?”

Tamara’s Response:

Actually that’s a great question, Liz!

Lead dust is best removed with laundry (and other) detergents whose formulations specifically contain surfactants.  Unfortunately, in the natural/organic/progressive mama world that many of us are immersed in these days, we look for products that do NOLaundryT have surfactants—as they are generally bad for the planet (specifically water systems).

This particular circumstance (lead dust removal) requires a compromise.  In this case, lead dust in your children’s environment is the (much) greater evil, and surfactants are required to clean up this kind of mess.

So if you normally have “natural” (surfactant-free) detergent at home for your laundry and you have recently had an incident with lead exposure (or you or your partner are likely to bring lead dust home on your clothes from work), you really need to get some detergent with surfactants in it in order to effectively remove the lead dust.

Because my children are also scent and chemical sensitive a result of having been lead poisoned as babies, what I use is any brand (Tide? Arm & Hammer? All, etc.) but I always make sure to get their scent-free / dye-free version of the regular detergent. [Mostly I stick with Arm & Hammer because it seems to have fewer chemicals listed than so many other brands.]

Then … you wash.

When our children were poisoned we had our babysitter and house-cleaners help wash everything in the house (in order to keep the kids away from the contaminated stuff and contaminated home.)

Things that we could not wash right away (and could not bear to part with) we packed up in boxes clearly marked “to decontaminate / wash later” – with the date packed on the box – and put in storage.

For all of our washable things (including small pillows, dolls and anything else that could safely go in our washing machine) we washed the items THREE times in warm or hot water – with extra rinse cycles when possible (luckily – as a mom of 3 boys at the time, we had a high-capacity washer… big enough to do comforters, blankets and sleeping bags and such!)  We then ran the washing machine (with detergent) again, empty between loads, just to ensure no residue remained in the washer’s tub.

For things that we could not wash (mattresses, upholstered furniture, large rugs, things that would not fit in the washing machine) we threw them out and replaced them.

BAD NEWS: It is very difficult (if not impossible) to get airborne lead dust (from sanding, fumes or backfiring vacuums) out of household items that can not be repeatedly washed with wet solutions containing surfactants.  This is especially true for large fabric items – like sofas and mattresses. The cost of testing the item, and then thoroughly wet-cleaning the item and then re-testing (most likely repeatedly until the items are clean enough) would be too great / negate the effort/ likely end up being more than replacement. Additionally, the most accurate testing for items like this is actually “destructive” digestive testing… where a sample of the item is cut out and tested in a lab to determine the presence of lead (and the quantity/hazard levels.) As a result, repeated testing and appropriate cleaning would likely destroy some of these items, especially if they are antiques or made of multiple materials (wood, glue, fabric, dyes, etc.)

GOOD NEWS/ BONUS:  The surfactants in laundry detergent are so good that you can use them to clean other things too!  For our children’s hard toys (that were in the house when they were poisoned), we first rinsed everything in our kitchen sink (we had moved out of the house and were not using the kitchen at all – we had a double sink and had one side filled with soapy/laundry detergent water and the other side with clean rinse water) and then put them all in the dishwasher (like Duplos, Legos, plastic toy cars and other things that could handle that kind of washing) and washed them with the sufactant-containing laundry soap (just like with the clothes: multiple times, and with an extra rinse cycle and running the machine empty between batches.)

The main thing about using your dishwasher in this way:  please use very little soap and titrate up until you have an amount that does the job without filling your kitchen floor with soap suds, a la Brady Bunch  [FYI, that comedic trope dates (at the very least) back to the Mary Pickford silent film, “Suds”!]

If you have follow up questions regarding this, please feel free to post in the comments below.


Tamara Rubin
Mother of Lead Poisoned Boys
“Unexpected Lead Expert”


5 Responses to Ask Tamara: How do you get lead dust out of laundry?

  1. Dan Askin September 9, 2015 at 6:02 am #

    How to test fabrics for lead dust (video):

    Here are some general guidelines to keep in mind if you need to wash leaded work clothes at home.

    1. When washing leaded clothing you always run a rinse cycle first. This removes all of the free dirt from the clothing first so that when the detergents are added they can go to work on the tough dirt and lead.
    2. When washing leaded work clothes at home:
    ALWAYS run a rinse cycle after all of the work clothes are done and removed, before any household clothes are washed.
    NEVER wash leaded work clothes with any other clothes.
    3. Some laundry detergents will react with the lead to form a soap scum that will be visible on the inside of the wash drum and if it is a front load washer it will be visible on the glass, the door gasket and inside the space between the door and wash drum.
    4. If you have this soap scum build up then it needs to be removed with an acid wash (Vinegar will generally work).
    5. Washer design is such that the lead particles that are freed from the clothing will either float away to the drain or will settle out on the bottom of the washer where they will generally remain forever.
    6. Both the lead soap scum and settled lead particles in the holding tank can be removed over the course of 10 or 20 wash cycles with the specialty lead laundry detergents available.
    7. You also need to be concerned with the clothes dryer. If the clothes are not getting thoroughly cleaned then they will contaminate the dryer. The dryer needs to be tested with a lead test kit, and if it tests positive, then the drum will need to be cleaned. Because some of the air is recirculated in a household dryer, this cleaning will need to be repeated to purge most of the lead from the inaccessible areas of the dryer.

    For additional information see:

    • Tamara October 5, 2017 at 11:59 am #

      Dan, thank you so much for posting this!

  2. Jenna Miller January 19, 2016 at 12:01 pm #

    Thanks for this information. Can I ask how long ago your children were lead poisoned and how it happened? Did you choose to wash the clothes and toys multiple times or did someone tell you to do that? I am just an anxious individual that is curious about some of these answers related to lead poisoning. I am just worried how little it takes to get poisoned.


    • Tamara October 5, 2017 at 11:58 am #

      Jenna – sorry to take so long to answer your question! For some reason I never saw it until now. My children are poisoned 12 years ago in 2005, when my baby was 7 months old and my toddler at the time was just about three years old. We had abatement cleaners come clean our home and they FAILED. They did not use clearance testing and our children were re-poisoned once we moved back into the home. As a result (pulling on advice from many many sources) we developed a way of cleaning our things that we felt confident about – a way that later resulted in our home passing clearance testing and our children’s blood lead levels going down. It just takes a microscopic amount of lead dust to poison a child. That is (at this time) a well known fact. Any lead dust is too much lead dust. You can see more of the story of how my children were poisoned in the trailer to the film that I Directed and Produced. Here is the trailer link:

  3. Jamie November 14, 2017 at 11:28 pm #

    So, where does the lead go after it leaves washing machine. The sewer? I’m not a city water cycle expert, but is more lead being put into drinking water when we wash contaminated clothing? Is it better ( in short term, at least) to just put them in a landfill?

    In terms of contaminating later laundry loads, should you always wipe the surface of machine down after washing rags, for example? Should I be cleaning the drains of my washing machine at some point?

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