Lead poisoning from eating lead-based paint chips resulted in a government ban on lead-based paint in 1978. Homes built after 1980 are required by law to use lead-free paint. So the problem should be over. Not true. While the signs of lead poisoning have long been recognized, recent research has shown that even small traces of lead in a child’s blood stream may cause subtle developmental delays, behavioral problems and even brain damage. Lead is now dubbed “the silent hazard.”
This toxic material enters the bloodstream, and the body, mistaking it for calcium, welcomes it into vital cells (such as those in bone marrow, kidneys, and the brain) where it interferes with the enzymes necessary for these organs to function normally. A child with lead poisoning shows these features:
- Colicky abdominal pain
- Constipation, diminished appetite
- Paleness from low hemoglobin levels
- Growth delay
- Developmental delay
- Poor attention span
Children do not get lead poisoning from chewing on pencils. Pencil paint is non-leaded, and the “lead” is harmless graphite. The lead that poisons children comes from old paint, gasoline emissions, contaminated soil, contaminated water, and lead pottery.
Look for the following high-risk sources of lead in your child’s environment, and follow our suggestions to reduce the risk. Also note that children with nutritional deficiencies of iron, calcium, and zinc are more susceptible to lead poisoning; another example of how good nutrition is preventive medicine.
Even though houses and apartments painted after 1980 should, by law, have lead-free paint, older homes and renovated homes may have new paint over old paint. Paint chips containing some of the old paint are inviting to the child who likes to mouth tiny pieces of anything. Even more toxic is the lead dust created from friction on paint chippings in areas of wear like windowsills, doorframes, and baseboards. A lead-based paint chip the size of a postage stamp may contain ten thousand times the safe level of lead if eaten by a child. Exploring little hands wipe along the window ledge and suck the toxic lead dust off their fingertips. Ingesting only a few specks of this dust or a chip a day during infancy can cause lead poisoning. To remove old paint dust from windowsills and other areas of wear, wipe with a high-phosphate detergent.
If you are having an old home renovated, be sure the contractor knows how to thoroughly remove the old paint residue. Also, keep your child out of the house during paint-stripping time. Following renovation, rent a HEPAvac (high-efficiency particulate-air-filtered vacuum) to remove leaded paint dust from the renovated area. Pay particular attention to old porches, which are notorious for providing millions of tiny flakes and paint dust for sticky little fingers.
If you drink water from a well or live in an older home where pipes may have been soldered with lead, have your tap water tested by an EPA-certified laboratory or your local water department if it provides such a service. (For information on how to get your water tested for lead, call 1-800-426-4791.)
If your tap water is high in lead, in addition to replacing the plumbing (if that is a possibility) use cold water for bathing (hot water removes more of the lead from the pipes), use bottled water for drinking and cooking, and obtain a water filter that is proven to remove lead.
Water drawn from the tap first thing in the morning has the greatest lead concentration. This is important to know since many parents prepare a daily supply of formula in the morning. If your pipes are suspicious or your water has been proven to contain lead, run the cold water for at least two minutes to flush out the pipe before using the tap water to prepare formula.
If you live downwind from highways or major intersections, test your child’s lead level at least a couple of times a year if moving is not an option.
Discourage your child from mouthing soil, especially if you live in renovated areas where old buildings have been torn down.
Newsprint used to contain lead, but newer inks are lead-free and considered nontoxic, so parents don’t have to worry about baby’s mouthing newspapers and magazines. Avoid storing food or liquid in lead crystal or imported ceramics. And don’t forget old toys and furniture that may be family heirlooms. As a final point, pregnant women and breastfeeding women should be especially careful to avoid exposure to lead. Pregnancy is not the time to strip old paint from baby’s nursery furniture, as the lead could pass from mother’s bloodstream into the fetus’. Before buying a home or renting an apartment, have the paint and water checked for lead content.
If your child has any of the above exposure risks, mention them to your doctor, who may order a lead blood test. In high-risk areas children should be routinely tested at twelve and twenty-four months. Because of the recent findings that low levels of lead can cause subtle developmental delays, the blood level at which a child may be at risk for damage has been lowered, from twenty-five micrograms per deciliter to ten micrograms.
Treatment of lead poisoning (injecting medicines into the child’s bloodstream to remove the lead) is expensive, painful, and cannot remove all of the lead. Some effects are irreversible. Prevention is the answer. Though environmentalists give much attention to preserving the wildlife in our forests, perhaps the most endangered species is the children in our cities.