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There is no safe level of exposure to lead. Children are especially vulnerable to lead poisoning, which can cause serious health problems including anemia, kidney damage, and brain damage.
Lead poisoning has declined in the United States over the past couple of decades due to efforts to reduce lead contamination, prevent exposure, and improve awareness of the danger. Still, close to half a million children test positively for lead poisoning each year, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control. Here's what you need to know to help protect your family.
How lead gets into a child's body
Kids are exposed to lead by inhaling lead dust, eating soil or paint chips that contain lead, and drinking contaminated water. Lead is not easily absorbed through the skin.
Tap water – which may be used to make formula and for cooking – can be a source of lead, especially in older homes. You can't see, smell, or taste the lead, and boiling the water won't eliminate it.
Even children who don't chew on paint chips can get lead into their system if there's lead-based paint in or around their home or another building they spend time in: Doors and window frames covered with lead paint release tiny particles of lead dust into the air every time they're opened or closed.
Kids may breathe in this lead dust or pick it up on their hands when it settles on floors and furniture. Once the lead dust is on their hands, it's a quick trip to their mouth when they lick their fingers or eat with their hands.
Pregnant women with elevated levels of lead in their blood can transfer lead to their unborn baby.
Here are the most common sources of lead exposure:
Spending time in an older building: The older your house is, the more likely it is to have lead-based paint and the greater the amount of lead the paint will have. Any building built before 1978 – including schools, office buildings, and daycares – probably contains lead paint.
Older homes are also more likely to have lead pipes, which can leach lead into water used for drinking, making formula, and cooking.
Living near a freeway or industrial area: Lead was used in gasoline and pesticides, and the soil around roads and orchards is probably still contaminated. Similarly, the area surrounding industrial sites such as factories is also likely to be contaminated.
Working with lead: People with certain jobs and hobbies can inadvertently bring home lead residue on their hands and clothing. If you work with stained glass or pottery, refinish furniture, or visit indoor shooting ranges, be sure to shower and change your clothes after work.
- Old furniture, playground equipment, and toys painted or varnished with a lead-based product
- Old vinyl flooring and mini blinds
- Brass keys
- Lead crystal glassware and lead-glazed ceramics and china
- Some toy jewelry
- Imported food in cans sealed with lead solder
- Old batteries
- Some hobby materials (like stained glass supplies)
- Some makeup (such as kohl, kajal, surma, lipstick)
- Folk remedies such as greta, azarcon, pay-loo-ah, ghasard, ba-baw-san, and daw tway, which are used to treat various illnesses.
How to tell if your child has lead poisoning
Often children don't show any symptoms, even when they have high levels of lead in their bodies. Possible symptoms include:
- Fatigue or hyperactivity
- Aggressive behavior
- Reduced attention span
- Developmental delay
- Difficulty sleeping
- Abdominal pain
- Loss of appetite
- Weight loss
- Problems with balance and motor control
A simple blood test is used to screen for lead poisoning. No amount of lead is considered safe, but a blood level greater than 5 micrograms/deciliter (mcg/dL) indicates you need to take steps to reduce your child's exposure. Brain function may be affected at just 10 mcg/dL, and a level above 45 mcg/dL requires medical treatment.
When to have your child tested for lead poisoning
Talk to the doctor about having your child tested if you're concerned about his exposure to lead. For example, if your child spends time in a building built before 1978, it's a good idea to get him checked. The blood test is covered by Medicaid and most private health insurance.
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends screening high-risk children at age 1 and 2, and some states require doctors to routinely screen children for lead poisoning. Check with your local or state health department to find out what services are available in your area.
What to do if your child has lead poisoning
If your child has an elevated level of lead in his blood, his doctor will help you identify and eliminate possible sources of lead in his environment. Once your child is no longer exposed, his body will slowly rid itself of lead (as long as the level isn't high enough to require medical treatment). The doctor may also recommend dietary changes to ensure that your child is getting adequate iron, calcium, and vitamin C.
If your child has very high levels of lead in his blood, his doctor may recommend chelation therapy. This involves taking medication that binds with lead and carries it out of the body in urine.
Your child will be retested periodically to make sure his lead levels are going down.
What about acute lead poisoning?
Exposure to very high amounts of lead – resulting in a blood lead level greater than 70 mcg/dL in children – causes acute lead poisoning. Fortunately, acute lead poisoning is rare. If you're aware of sources of lead exposure and take precautions, the likelihood of your child developing a serious case of lead poisoning is quite low.
How to protect your child from lead exposure
Keep your child's hands clean. Wash his hands several times a day, especially after he plays outside and before he eats a meal or snack. Teach him how to wash his hands properly. (Hands must be washed for at least 20 seconds to remove lead particles.)
- Keep your home clean. Wipe up paint chips and dust with a wet paper towel, and mop your floors with a damp mop. Consider buying a vacuum with a HEPA filter to help trap lead dust particles.
- Make sure that your child's crib or bed, playpen, and toys don't have any peeling paint. Wash toys regularly to avoid contamination from dust or soil.
- If your child is a baby or toddler, don't let him chew on painted surfaces, such as windowsills, cribs, play yards, or furniture.
- Don't let your child play in the dirt, especially around older buildings. Plant grass or cover soil with mulch, and keep your child out of soil close to the house.
- Identify and eliminate any potential sources of lead in your home. Periodically check for recalls of toys and other children's and household items that may contain lead.
- Make sure he eats well. If your child is well nourished, his body may be less likely to absorb lead even if he's exposed to it. It's particularly important for him to get enough iron, calcium, and vitamin C.
- If your child goes to daycare or school, find out when the building was built and whether it has been tested for the presence of lead. Do everything possible to make sure he has a lead-free daycare and school environment.
- Test your tap water and take steps to eliminate lead if necessary. Use only cold water from the tap for drinking, making formula, and cooking – hot water is more likely to have higher amounts of lead.
Testing your environment for lead
If you decide to test your house, yard, or water for lead, have a professional do the job. Do-it-yourself home lead-testing kits are not always accurate. Your state or local health department may perform lead testing, possibly for free, or can refer you to a qualified professional.
Contact the National Lead Information Center (NLIC) at (800) 424-5323 (424-LEAD) or visit the NLIC website to find state-specific information and resources in your area.
If you're going to buy or rent a home built before 1978, federal law requires landlords and sellers to provide you with a Residential Lead-Based Disclosure Program disclosing known information about lead-based paint and lead-based paint hazards.
The federal government requires that contractors who perform renovation, repair, or painting that will disturb lead-based paint in homes, childcare facilities, and schools built before 1978 be certified and follow specific work practices to prevent lead contamination.
If you're concerned about the possibility of lead in your water, call the EPA's Safe Drinking Water Hotline at (800) 426-4791. To test for lead in dishes, glasses, or pottery, call the FDA at (800) 332-4010.
If testing turns up lead in the soil around your house, consider planting shrubs or groundcover and keep your child out of the dirt. You can have contaminated soil removed, or bring in clean topsoil if you're planting a vegetable garden.
If you have lead pipes, use only cold water for cooking and drinking and let it run for a few minutes to flush out the pipes. You might also consider purchasing a filter certified for lead removal.
Repainting won't seal in lead paint, and removing it can put more contaminated dust into the air. If you want to remove lead paint, hire a professional certified by the EPA. Pregnant women and young children should stay elsewhere until the work is completed, and the work areas should be sealed off from the rest of the house and yard.