Dark stained original interior wood door
in house built in 1905 (Portland, Oregon)
The door pictured above is in my home, which is in Portland, Oregon (USA) and was built in 1905. I believe (based on their design, construction – and test results) that these are the original doors from when the home was built. They were unpainted, and instead have a dark stain on them, and (in the photo above) you can clearly see where a center cross board has had the surface removed (through the abuses by children over the years), exposing the natural wood color of the door. It is not uncommon for dark stain finishes like this to test positive for both Lead and Arsenic. I typically see wood stains of this era (in a range of colors / shades) testing positive for Lead at levels as high as 1,500 ppm (or higher) and for Arsenic at levels in the range of 150 to 300 ppm.
Can Arsenic levels like this have a human health impact?
Since Lead exposure is discussed everywhere on this blog, I wanted to take a moment to focus on the Arsenic concern here. I recently visited the home of a young boy who is “on the spectrum”. His mama’s doctor ordered a urine test – and, in addition to a Lead level that was literally “off the charts” (the highest reading available for the test done) – Mom unexpectedly tested positive for Arsenic (see her test results below.)
In my experience working with families [in the capacity of a Healthy Home Consultant, looking for sources of toxicant exposure in their personal possessions] for more than a decade, I have seen that for a hair or urine to test positive for Arsenic, it nearly always correlates with a persistent exposure to some source of Arsenic in the home environment – something the person who tested positive uses or is exposed to in their daily lives. Below is the test result set for the mother in this family (shared with permission):
A walk-through of the family’s home revealed that the family (a family of means, with plenty of nice things – including many antiques) had an extensive collection of antique wooden furniture (including an antique piano) all with medium-to-dark stain finishes, all of which were positive for Arsenic (most in the 200 to 300 ppm range). While I am not a doctor, and as such am not qualified to speculate about the specific health impacts on the family, the clear implication from the evidence of the urine test was that this Arsenic was likely finding its way in to the bodies of this family.
Old things create dust.
With the family mentioned above, the test results suggested that the large quantity of Arsenic-contaminated antiques in the home might likely be contributing to Arsenic exposure to both the mother and the child. The main suspected pathway for this is micro-dust created by the antique items simply sitting passively in the home. Antiques exude micro-dust over time even without use – and more so through movement of friction surfaces (like cabinet doors, piano key covers, etc.) With this particular family – to help test my suspicion that the antiques in the home were creating Arsenic-laden micro-dust – we decided to also test the HEPA filter from the air purifier the family had sitting next to their piano. With high-precision XRF testing, the dust in the filter (a filter which had not been changed recently – and therefore had a chance for dust to build up a bit) also tested positive for high levels of Arsenic, adding weight to the concern that the antique furniture might be creating an airborne dust hazard of Arsenic.
Why are there no scientific studies supporting your claims, Tamara?!
To my knowledge, there are have not yet been any scientific studies to specifically evaluate the concerns for Arsenic in house dust created by the mere presence of antique furniture. That does not mean these are not legitimate observations about potential causal impacts (I.e. vintage or antique wood furniture contributing to a body burden of Arsenic in the inhabitants of a home), it just means that no one (no industry) has seen a potential financial benefit of underwriting research into this sort of impact, and so studies along these lines have not yet been done. (Key word: “yet”.)
It is also possible that I may simply be the first (or among the first) to draw these empirical conclusions – and this consideration has merely not yet been noted by the scientific research community as a concern and, as such, has just not yet been formally studied. Stay tuned, because often when I report about a new concern like this one… the scientific community comes up with a research study that confirms my concerns / suspicions — usually about 5 to 10 years later.
What should I do about toxic metals in antique wood finishes?
In the meantime (prior to any formal studies being done to confirm this concern), please carefully consider the potential health impacts of any antique items you may have in your home, and make your choices accordingly [and if you collect antiques, perhaps consider asking your doctor for a hair or urine test – a comprehensive panel for heavy metals], so you can make informed decisions for your family.
I am also sometimes available for one-on-one home consultations – depending on my travel schedule (you can read more about that here – link.) I generally travel for this work in January, April and October of each year and you can get on my schedule for an upcoming trip by confirming in advance. I usually have time to work with between 2 and 4 families at each location I travel to.
Paint-free does not mean Lead-free
Specific XRF test results for the door pictured above:
- Lead (Pb): 987 +/- 37 ppm
- Arsenic (As): 157 +/- 27 ppm
- Zinc (Zn): 37 +/- 12 ppm
- Iron (Fe): 241 +/- 41 ppm
- Titanium (Ti): 205 +/- 40 ppm
- Chlorine (Cl): 3,453 +/- 490 ppm
Lead Safe Mama’s solution: New doors / No friction
As with everything I write about, I try to find simple inexpensive solutions for families (including for my own family). Our solution to addressing the concern for Lead and Arsenic contaminated wood work has been to either replace (or remove) the offending components – OR to at least block them with furniture, to lessen their use, and lessen the deterioration from movement and contact with (or impact from) kids.
For us this has meant removing several of the doors in our home (without replacing them) and also replacing several of our doors with brand new unfinished / unpainted solid wood doors. Any new replacement doors have been installed with sufficient clearances that there is no friction against the surrounding original frame (if we left the original door frame in place, as in the example pictured below) OR we have installed a new pre-hung door (i.e. complete with a new frame). In other cases we have just removed doors entirely and disposed of them in our household trash [like the one on the room I am using as my home office!]. These are not final measures – as the remaining trim in the home can still create dust – but they were measures undertaken to lessen the impact while continuing to live in the home. Our goal is to replace all of the original trim and doors in our home – in stages, as funding permits. You can see an example below of one of our replaced doors (with original trim.)
Continue reading below the image:
As always, thank you for reading and for sharing my posts. Please let me know if you have any questions and I will do my best to answer them personally!
Some additional images of these doors: