Is Painting Your Home a Risk For Parkinson’s Disease?

A new study out of Harvard University found a link between one’s body burden of lead (the toxic heavy metal found in old paint) and Parkinson’s Disease (PD). The long-term accumulation of lead over the lifespan is reflected by the amount stored in bone, a simple and non-invasive measurement with modern equipment. The more lead found in the bones of this population of 60-somethings the greater was their risk of PD. This finding shouldn’t be shocking as lead is toxic to the brain, but what is newsy is that we are looking at lead damage to the brain of adults rather than children. We usually worry about lead’s toxic effects on early life brain development causing lower IQ, attention deficit disorders in school and even increased tendency for criminal behavior. But this research in adults suggests that your exposure to lead throughout life, not just in childhood, matters when it comes to PD. Other research indicates that adult exposure to lead is a risk factor for high blood pressure and heart disease, so there are numerous reasons to avoid lead no matter what age you are.

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A new study out of Harvard University found a link between one’s body burden of lead (the toxic heavy metal found in old paint) and Parkinson’s Disease (PD). The long-term accumulation of lead over the lifespan is reflected by the amount stored in bone, a simple and non-invasive measurement with modern equipment. The more lead found in the bones of this population of 60-somethings the greater was their risk of PD. This finding shouldn’t be shocking as lead is toxic to the brain, but what is newsy is that we are looking at lead damage to the brain of adults rather than children. We usually worry about lead’s toxic effects on early life brain development causing lower IQ, attention deficit disorders in school and even increased tendency for criminal behavior. But this research in adults suggests that your exposure to lead throughout life, not just in childhood, matters when it comes to PD. Other research indicates that adult exposure to lead is a risk factor for high blood pressure and heart disease, so there are numerous reasons to avoid lead no matter what age you are. 

So where does lead come from? There are traces in your diet and perhaps some in your drinking water depending upon how old your pipes are. But the greatest exposures often come from:

  1. Occupations which disrupt old paint – construction and demolition workers, remodelers and painters; since lead was widely used in paint prior to 1978, these trades encounter lots of lead dust especially if they use aggressive methods on painted surfaces (sanding, heat guns, sledge hammers). 
  2. Home remodeling, repairs and painting projects – these activities are just as dangerous for the home do-it-yourselfer as it is for workers in these jobs.
  3. Hobbies involving lead objects such as making your own fishing sinkers, shooting guns at an indoor firing range.
  4. Artwork which uses lead-based glazes to make pottery or stained glass.
  5. Pottery that use lead glaze imported  from Mexico or China – don’t eat or drink out of these festive mugs and bowls unless you can verify they are lead free.  (Hint – look on the bottom for a sticker with country of origin.)

To keep your lead body burden and your PD risk as low as possible here are some simple suggestions:  

  1. Use lead-safe methods when disrupting painted surfaces – these methods are easy to find on the internet and are very doable – they keep you and the rest of your family safe from the hazards of lead dust; only hire painting/remodeling contractors who use these practices.
  2. Don’t make your own sinkers and avoid indoor rifle ranges and any other hobby or artwork involving lead.
  3. Test your water for lead if your home was built before 1985 – after that time lead was banned from plumbing.
  4. Use good hygiene at work or home – wash hands thoroughly before eating and change out of soiled clothing before cooking dinner.
  5. Get yourself tested for lead – a simple blood test will show if there are hidden sources in your home or work environment.   

There are various risk factors for Parkinson’s Disease – don’t let lead exposure be one of them.  

Blog written by Gary Ginsberg, PhD
Dr. Ginsberg is a public health toxicologist whose research focuses on the unique susceptibilities of children to environmental...