Lead based paints contain a highly soluble form of lead compounds. Historically, lead paint was used due to its superior durability and appearance over non-lead paints. The use of lead paint was widespread in the twentieth century, in both residential and industrial applications, and continues to this day despite the fact that it was banned in 1978 for residential uses because of concerns regarding lead poisoning of children.
Today legacy lead based paints continue to be a serious issue because of the very large quantity remaining in the environment. Older buildings containing lead paint exist throughout the U.S. Additionally, large amounts of soil and dust contain elevated levels of soluble lead from the breakdown of old leaded paints. In this regard, lead paint is a significant source of lead exposure to humans and wildlife. In fact, many avian species have been observed consuming leaded paint fragments from numerous sources.
A study conducted on Midway Island concluded that the Laysan albatross was experiencing population level decline from exposure to leaded paint (Finkelstein et al, 2003). The source of exposure was determined to be lead paint flaking from old military buildings at bases on the island. The birds were consuming these fragments and feeding them to their fledglings, causing as many as 10,000 deaths per year in this one colony.
Another noted avian exposure to lead based paint in the environment was discovered at Pinnacles National Monument in California. California condors 317 and 318 (all birds are numbered by the Condor Recovery Program), were observed ingesting lead paint fragments from the North Chalone Fire Lookout Tower. In turn, these parents fed the regurgitated lead paint fragments to their fledgling (550). Condors 317, 318 and 550 were all tested and found to have elevated blood-lead levels, while 550 had to be evacuated to the Los Angeles Zoo for intensive chelation treatment for lead poisoning.
Despite the known health effects from the highly soluble form of compounded lead in paint, lead paint is still used for road base paint on highways throughout the U.S. Because of the superior quality and durability of lead paint, the Department of Transportation uses leaded paints for striping highways. The current lead paint used on highways has been diluted since the passage of the 1978 lead paint ban, nevertheless this soluble lead compound remains in use in our environment. Though lead paint is no longer widely used in the U.S., lead based paint remains prevalent in our environment and continues to poison humans and wildlife.