You still need to worry about lead poisoning

Did you think lead poisoning was a thing of the past? Well, guess again. Lead continues to wreak havoc on the developing brains of American kids. It can also cross the placenta and damage the fetal brain. Research in the past decade has confirmed that even low doses of lead in the blood can result in behavior problems and lower IQ. So even though blood lead levels have decreased dramatically in the past twenty years, the average level in American kids is still too high. There is currently no blood lead level that is considered safe. So how are kids exposed?

Lead was a component of house paint until the late 1950’s when it was phased out and finally banned in 1978. So, virtually all homes built before 1955 and many built into the 70’s have leaded paint on indoor walls and on porches. This isn’t a problem if the paint stays put. But if paint is cracked, peeling, or if it coats window casings it will pulverize to dust. Young children who play on the floor and then put their hands and their toys in their mouths will ingest this dust. Lead is also in the soil near highways and around older homes – from the deposition of leaded exhaust particles and from the breakdown of outdoor house paint. Children who play in, and inadvertently ingest the soil in these areas may be exposed. More recently, children’s jewelry and other small toys have been found to contain lead. There have even been fatalities from lead poisoning after children swallowed these trinkets.

Pregnant women develop funny cravings, sometimes for things that are ‘crunchy.’ For some, clay pots brought from their native countries have just the right amount of crunch. Unfortunately, many ceramic items contain dangerous levels of lead, which crosses the placenta and is excreted in breast milk. Elevated lead levels have been found in pregnant women who have munched on tiny bits of crockery, and their infants have been born with lead poisoning.

What can you do?

If you live in an older home, have your child tested for lead on a regular basis. Ask your doctor if he or she is familiar with the screening recommendations in your area (which depend on age of housing and prevalence of lead poisoning). If you are pregnant and live in an older home, ask your doctor to test your blood lead level.

Wash your child’s hands frequently, especially before eating. Don’t let him eat dirt. Wipe off her toys frequently with a damp cloth.

Keep children’s jewelry and other small trinkets out of your child’s mouth.

If you live in an older home, be VERY CAREFUL if you carry out any renovation. Make sure the carpenters and painters are following “lead safe” practices – now required by federal law. Keep your child out of dusty areas.

For more information check out Lead in Your Home: A Parent’s Reference Guide from the US Environmental Protection Agency.

Resources for health care professionals

Continuing Medical Education Case Study on lead toxicity

Guidelines for lead screening in pregnancy

Guidelines for pediatric screening by geographic location


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