Lead Poisoning

Lead poisoning is cause for serious concern. Long-term exposure to lead can cause mental retardation, hearing problems, anemia, severe colic, poor growth, developmental delays and learning and behavior problems. Even more frightening is the fact that a child can have dangerously high levels of lead in her blood and never act or look sick.

Lead is especially dangerous for unborn babies and young children, whose brains and central nervous systems are still developing. And because lead does not degrade or breakdown with time, children continue to be at risk for lead poisoning.

Lead is found almost everywhere in our environment, and it doesn’t take much to cause harm.

The most well-known culprit is lead-based paint, which was commonly used in houses and other buildings erected before 1978. Lead-based paint produced before 1960 is especially toxic. When any lead-based paint peels or chips, or is exposed during remodeling projects, it’s very easy for kids to come in contact with the poison.

Water can be a lead hazard as well, especially in homes or schools with lead pipes or copper pipes joined with lead solder. Well-water also may be contaminated.

Although unleaded gasoline has been used for many years, automobiles still give off lead. The dust and soil near a heavily traveled roadway can be enough to cause lead poisoning.

Other objects that also may contain lead, including batteries, fishing sinkers, ammunition, plastic mini-blinds, pipes, pottery glazes, printing inks and toys or furniture painted with a lead-based paint.

Young children like to put things in their mouths, which is what puts them at high risk for lead poisoning. But children who eat non-food items — such as dirt, cigarette butts, beads, etc. — are at even higher risk. (See Tip #TP316, “Pica.”) This could be a sign of iron deficiency or anemia, which can cause kids to crave non-food items and put them at an increased risk for lead exposure.

Children who are teething also are more likely to chew on items that may contain lead. Make sure that cribs and/or playpens are kept at a safe distance from windowsills. Lead-based paint on windows can create dust that is contaminated with lead when the windows are repeatedly opened and closed.

Lead can enter the body when you inhale dust that is contaminated with lead. It also can enter the body when you ingest or swallow something that is made of lead or that has come from a container that has a lead coating, such as food containers with a lead glaze or food cans from outside of the United States.

Children whose parents or other caregivers work in industries that use lead — such as construction, welding and pottery — also are at high risk because of the lead dust the adult tracks into the house. Living near industrial plants that release lead (such as battery recycling plants) is also a risk. Children absorb about seven times more of the lead they ingest into their bodies than do adults.

Several factors, including the age of your home and the age of your child, can affect the risk of lead poisoning. Ask your child’s doctor, particularly if you’ve moved recently, about if and when lead testing is necessary.

Watch for the following signs that may indicate lead poisoning:

If a blood test shows borderline or high levels of lead, your child should be retested regularly.

Depending upon the level of lead found in your child’s body, your doctor may prescribe lead-lowering medication and/or outpatient or inpatient treatment.

You also will need to identify the source of the contamination. Do-it-yourself lead testing kits are available, although they do not measure exact levels of lead and they may not be reliable to determine low levels of lead. Call your local health department for information about state-certified lead testing services in your area. If high blood levels are found, you may qualify for free testing and cleaning.

The most common places to find lead-based paint are porch ceilings and the window wells of double-hung windows. All painted surfaces need to be tested since different paints may have been used over the years on walls, window sills and doors. If you have lead paint in your house, do not attempt to remove it yourself. Scraping and sanding can actually make the situation worse! Hire an expert to either remove the paint safely or enclose it. Don’t return to the house until the removal is complete and the area has been thoroughly cleaned.

If a professional determines that you have lead in your water, don’t use water from the hot-water tap for cooking or bathing. If the cold water hasn’t been used for a few hours, run it for a minute or two before using it for drinking or cooking. You may want to consider buying a whole-house water filter that’s certified for lead removal. If the problem lies in your pipes, you may want to have the house re-plumbed.

Soil samples may be collected from areas where your children and pets play, as well as places where dirt is likely to be tracked into the house. If you live in an older home, the soil near the house is often full of lead from past scraping and repainting.

Encourage your children to play in sandy or grassy areas, which are less likely to have high concentrations of lead. Make sure they don’t eat dirt and that they wash their hands when they come inside. If pets roll in the dirt, bathe them right away.

There are some fairly simple steps to reduce your child’s risk of lead poisoning:


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