Question from Liz: “What’s the best way to wash clothing that could be contaminated with lead dust?”
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 NOT 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.
Mother of Lead Poisoned Boys
“Unexpected Lead Expert”