DIY craze that carries lethal risk

Fashion for stripping wood can release deadly lead fumes, reports Ian Burrell

THE growing fashion for stripped wood could bring about a major increase in cases of lead poisoning. Leaded paint, which has been undisturbed for decades, is being removed with heat guns and sanders, unleashing potentially lethal fumes.

Joan Rider, a fitness instructor, found this to her cost when she chose a stripped-wood finish for her newly bought five-bedroom home and nearly died as a result.

The task of burning and blasting the paintwork from the door frames and skirting boards of the Victorian property almost destroyed her both physically and mentally.

She lost her sense of balance and had to stop working because of chronic tiredness and dizziness.

Her condition baffled doctors until tests showed she had nearly 800 milligrams of lead per litre of blood, eight times the safe limit and leaving her at risk of fatal brain damage. She had been poisoned by inhaling thousands of particles of lead from the dust of pre-war paint. "It's an insidious way of being poisoned," she said. "As long as you have the lead in your body your condition is going to get worse."

Until the 1960s, paint contained up to 50 per cent lead by weight. But when the paint is burned off by temperatures in excess of 450C, the lead vaporises.

Richard Meeran of the London solicitors Leigh Day, said that the Government, the DIY industry and doctors were all culpable for failing to warn the public of the dangers. "This has been known about for a long time. They have all been slow to issue warnings to the public and they still have not done it effectively."

A new Lead Awareness Group, comprising leading doctors, toxicologists, lawyers and environmentalists, has been set up to warn the public of the risks of lead paint.

Mr Meeran is particularly angry that some DIY companies have been warning American consumers of the dangers of lead paint since 1983 but failing to do the same in this country.

There are also particular dangers to children who develop a craving for lead paint on doors or window sills because it tastes so sweet.

Mr Meeran is dealing with two cases where babies have been severely brain damaged by chewing on lead paint.

Meanwhile Mrs Rider, 55, from Broadstairs in Kent, is having therapy which involves taking 18 tablets a day to draw the lead from her body tissue.

She is now considering legal action against the makers of the sandblaster and heat gun equipment. "You become physically weak and that affects you emotionally," she said. "You cannot do things you would normally be able to do. It destroys your life."

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