Recent reports of defective lead testing machines have once again brought the issue of lead poisoning to the forefront. Lead is a toxic metal that can harm the brain and nervous system, even in small amounts. Children, especially those under the age of six, are particularly vulnerable to lead poisoning because their brains are actively developing, and they tend to touch and put objects in their mouths. In this article, we'll discuss the dangers of lead, how children can be exposed to it, and what parents can do to protect their children.
How is lead a danger to health?
Lead is a poison that can have severe health effects, particularly on children. Even small amounts of lead in the blood can be harmful. Lead poisoning can cause learning, behavior, and hearing problems, as well as damage to the brain and nervous system. In some cases, lead poisoning can be fatal. There is no safe level of lead in the blood.
Lead exposure can cause irreversible damage to children's cognitive development and has been linked to lower IQ scores, decreased attention span, and impaired academic performance. Lead exposure can also result in behavioral issues, such as hyperactivity, aggression, and impulsivity.
How do children get exposed to lead?
Lead can be found in a variety of sources, including paint, dust, soil, water, and certain products. In the United States, lead used to be more common in paint and gasoline, but it can still be found in older homes and buildings. Here are some possible sources of lead exposure:
Houses built before 1978 may have lead-based paint. If the paint is peeling or chipping, children can ingest the paint chips or inhale the dust. The most common sources of lead exposure in homes are lead-based paint, contaminated soil, and household dust that is contaminated by deteriorated lead-based paint.
Although leaded gasoline is no longer used in most vehicles, it is still allowed in some aircraft, farm equipment, and other machines. Children living near highways or busy streets may also be exposed to lead from the exhaust fumes of older cars.
Water passing through lead pipes
Older homes may have lead pipes that can contaminate the drinking water. Lead can also be found in some plumbing fixtures, such as faucets and valves. Homes built before 1986 are more likely to have lead pipes and fixtures.
Lead can also be found in some imported toys, jewelry, and traditional medicines. Some parents may have exposure at work or through hobbies and bring it home on their hands or clothing. Examples include working in demolition of older houses, making things using lead solder, or having exposure to lead bullets at a firing range.
What can parents do to protect children from lead?
First and foremost, parents need to be aware of possible exposures and take steps to reduce the risk of lead poisoning. Here are some steps parents can take to protect their children from lead exposure:
1. Get your home tested for lead
If you have an older home, get it inspected for lead if you haven't done so already. (If you rent, federal law requires landlords to disclose known lead-based paint hazards when you sign a lease.) Inspection is particularly important if you are planning renovations, which often create dust and debris that increase the risk of exposure.
Your local health department can give you information about how to do this testing. If there is lead in your home, don't try to remove it yourself! It needs to be done carefully, by a qualified professional, to be safe.
2. Test your water for lead
Talk to your local health department about getting the water in your house tested. Even if your house is new, there can sometimes be older pipes in the water system. Using a water filter and taking other steps can reduce or eliminate lead in tap water.
3. Keep your home clean
Regularly clean your home to reduce the risk of lead exposure. Use wet mopping and wet dusting to clean floors and surfaces, as dry sweeping can spread lead dust. Vacuum with a HEPA filter, and wash children's hands and toys frequently. If possible, remove shoes before entering the home to prevent lead-contaminated soil from being tracked inside.
4. Be cautious with traditional remedies and imported products
Some traditional remedies, such as certain Ayurvedic and Chinese medicines, may contain lead. Imported products such as toys, jewelry, and ceramics may also contain lead. Be cautious when purchasing these products, and check to make sure they meet safety standards. Do not let your child play with or handle products that are known to contain lead.
5. Encourage good nutrition
A healthy diet can help protect children from lead exposure. Calcium, iron, and vitamin C can all reduce the absorption of lead in the body. Make sure your child eats a balanced diet with plenty of fruits, vegetables, and dairy products. If you're concerned about your child's nutrition, talk to your pediatrician about possible dietary supplements.
6. Talk to your pediatrician about lead testing
Talk to your pediatrician about whether your child should have a blood test to check for lead poisoning. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends assessing young children for risk of exposure at all checkups between 6 months and 6 years of age, and testing children if a risk is identified, particularly at 12 and 24 months.
Living in an old home, or in a community with lots of older homes, counts as a risk. Given that low levels of lead exposure that can lead to lifelong problems do not cause symptoms, it's always better to be safe than sorry. If there is any chance that your child might have an exposure, get them tested.
How is childhood lead exposure treated?
If your child is found to have lead in their blood, the most important next step is to figure out the exposure — and get rid of it. Once the child is no longer exposed, the lead level will go down, although it does so slowly.
Iron deficiency makes the body more vulnerable to lead poisoning. If your child has an iron deficiency it should be treated, but usually medications aren't used unless lead levels are very high. In those cases, special medications called chelators are used to help pull the lead out of the blood.
Lead poisoning is a serious and preventable health issue. By knowing about possible exposures and taking steps to reduce the risk of lead poisoning, parents can protect their children from the harmful effects of lead.
Testing for lead exposure is an important part of preventive care for young children, and early detection can help prevent permanent damage to their cognitive and behavioral development.
Talk to your pediatrician if you have any concerns about your child's risk for lead exposure or if you suspect your child may have been exposed to lead.