Even though lead paint was banned back in 1978, it remains a real and present danger in tens of millions of U.S. homes. In fact, more than 87 percent of homes built before 1940 in the U.S. have lead paint, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

The agency also notes that lead poisoning is the single greatest environmental health threat to children ages 6 and younger in this country. To highlight that danger, this week is designated as National Lead Poisoning Prevention Week.

"Adults are susceptible to lead poisoning, but children have a higher sensitivity to lead and are most vulnerable," says Michael Hansen, Ph.D., a senior scientist at Consumer Reports whose work has included testifying before government committees on environmental health issues. "Lead can damage most systems in the body, including the brain and nervous system, and even low levels can cause behavioral and learning problems. Both CDC and EPA have stated that there are no safe blood lead levels in children, so exposure should be minimized."

More on Lead

Lead dust is the most common form of exposure, especially during home repairs and remodels. If you're embarking on a major renovation of a home built before 1978, the best policy is to play it safe and assume lead is present. Any professional you hire must follow the EPA's Lead Renovation, Repair, and Painting Rule, which is meant to ensure that any harmful dust will be properly contained.

Lead paint that is in good condition is not necessarily a hazard, but it's always a good idea to know what dangers might be churned up during a remodel or painting project. Several manufacturers make DIY lead test kits that you can use as a first step toward understanding the risk of lead poisoning in your home. If you're planning a major renovation, it's prudent to work with a certified professional by contacting your state or local agency at 800-424-LEAD.

Remember that drinking water is another potential source of lead poisoning, in particular in homes with lead plumbing. If you're concerned about the safety of your drinking water, consider a water filter. Consumer Reports has ratings of nearly 50 water filters, from inexpensive carafes costing as little as $15 to sophisticated reverse-osmosis systems that cost more than $1,000 to purchase and maintain but will capture lead along with other potential contaminants.

For more information on National Lead Prevention Week, including specifics on getting your home or your child tested, visit the websites of the EPA and the Centers for Disease Control.