When David Rosner was a kid, he’d go into his grandfather’s garage and mix up cans of paint.

“I can still remember just sticking a stick in to mix it up and hitting halfway down a solid mass of hard stuff,” says Rosner. “That was lead.”

Today, Rosner is a professor of public health at Columbia University and the co-author of Lead Wars: The Politics of Science and the Fate of America’s Children. He’s well aware of the danger contained in that can of paint.

Exposure to lead, through dust and chipping paint, can cause permanent developmental delays in children under the age of six.

“It became apparent in the 1970s, children who had lead in their blood did substantially worse on various kinds of neurological tests, IQ tests, behavioral tests and also worse in school,” says Rosner.

Based on that evidence, lead was banned as an ingredient in paint in 1978. Seventy percent of Pennsylvania’s current housing stock was built before then, meaning there are a lot of homes with lead paint on the walls.

If that paint is covered over with non-lead paint and maintained diligently, you can safely live in a home with lead paint on the walls. The issue comes when there’s chipping or peeling paint, or dust from renovation work. An adult can inhale some lead dust without consequences, but children under the age of six, and their developing brains, are at much higher risk.

“What we’ve created is this time bomb,” says Rosner. “Anytime there is a leak, or the paint starts to peel, or you hammer a nail into the wall and dust is created, you can poison a child.”

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keystone-crossroads-logoThis story comes from our partners at Keystone Crossroads, a reporting project exploring the urgent challenges pressing upon Pennsylvania's cities.