Lead is a dangerous poison that damages every system in the body. It is especially dangerous to developing babies and young children because it harms the growing brain and nervous system. Long-term effects of lead exposure can be severe, and include learning disabilities, slowed growth, hyperactivity, impaired hearing, anemia, brain damage, lowered intelligence, or death.
To ensure that more children are screened for lead exposure at the appropriate age, Environmental Health Specialists, Pregnancy Care Managers and Care Coordination for Children (CC4C) Care Managers encourage women to obtain blood lead level testing during their pregnancies and encourage and parents to obtain blood lead level tests for their children during routine screenings with their child’s pediatrician. Environmental Health also provides education regarding lead exposure.
When results are high: When a screening has high results, the physician’s office contacts Public Health’s CC4C or School Health programs, which coordinate with the physician’s office and Environmental Health.
Investigation: An Environmental Health Specialist conducts a home investigation with the state’s regional lead specialist. They check all painted surfaces of the home, both inside and out, as well as toys, dishes, knick-knacks and anything else the child could ingest, such as spices, herbs and traditional medicines.
Reporting back: The Environmental Health Specialist reports investigation findings to the homeowner and/or parent, explaining where lead was found and what needs to be done, depending on how high the child’s lead level was. CC4C and School Health report investigation findings back to the physician.
On painted surfaces
Lead paint is the major source of lead poisoning in the home. About 75% of U.S. homes and apartments constructed before 1978 contain lead paint, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Lead paint can also be found on older toys and furniture. Children can be poisoned by chewing on painted surfaces or eating paint chips. Another common cause is lead dust, which is released by peeling or chipping paint and deposited on window sashes, porch floors, and other surfaces.
In the soil
Soil can be contaminated by chips and dust from exterior lead paint, past use of lead-based insecticides, and other lead containing chemicals or objects such as automobile batteries. The highest levels of lead in soil are usually found close to the foundations of homes painted with exterior leaded paint.
The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that drinking water accounts for about 20% of lead exposure. The water can be contaminated through lead water pipes, plumbing fittings of brass and bronze, and lead solder used to connect copper pipes. The greatest risk is to infants on formula mixed with contaminated water.
Food can be contaminated if it is grown near sources of lead pollution, stored or baked in poorly glazed pottery (especially if the food is acidic), prepared by people with lead dust on their hands, or stored in lead crystal for prolonged periods of time. Leaded crystal can leach lead quickly into acidic liquids such as wine or fruit juices.
Other sources of lead
- Battery casings
- Antique pewter
- Dust from renovation, even from down the street
- Drapery and window weights
- Homemade or folk medicines and cosmetics
- Some porcelain or pottery (especially if imported)
- Fishing weights
- Dust or fumes from hobbies that use lead, such as stained glass or target shooting
- Stomach ache and cramping
- Frequent vomiting
- Sleep disorders
- Poor appetite
Lower levels of lead exposure can cause damage to the nervous system, including the brain, interfere with growth, harm hearing, lower IQ, and make learning difficult. It can affect a child's ability to concentrate and cause behavior disorders.
At high blood levels of lead, you may notice clumsiness, weakness, and a loss of recently learned skills in a child's actions.
Very high lead levels can cause convulsions, coma, and death.
Lead screening is a blood test that can find out if there is a harmful level of lead in a child's blood. In general, all children under the age of 6 should be screened for blood lead levels. Most children should be screened starting at 12 to 15 months, with follow-ups as recommended by the child's health care provider. Children who are at high risk should be screened starting at 6 months of age. High-risk children include:
- Those who live, play or are cared for in older housing (especially if paint is in poor condition or if the home is undergoing renovation)
- Those who have brothers, sisters, or playmates with high lead levels
- Those who live with someone who is exposed to lead on the job or whose hobby includes lead
- Those who live near a lead smelting operation, battery recycling plant or other industry that releases lead into the air.
A blood test is all it takes to find out if there is too much lead in a child's blood. If a child's blood test shows that lead may be a problem, a second blood test may be necessary. A blood lead test can be obtained at the child's pediatrician's office.
- Be alert for chipping and flaking paint
- Use only safe interior paint on walls, toys, furniture, etc.
- Make sure that children only put safe clean items in their mouths
- Don't allow children to eat snow or icicles
- Feed children a well-balanced diet which is high in iron and calcium
- Don't store food in open cans
- Don't use pottery for cooking or serving if you're unsure about its glaze
- Have your water tested if you suspect it might contain lead. Draw drinking and cooking water only after letting it run for a few minutes.
- If you work with lead be sure to shower and change clothes before coming home. Wash your work clothes before coming home. Wash your work clothes separately from the family's clothes.
Unborn babies are also affected by lead. A pregnant woman with lead in her body can pass it on to her baby. Lead exposure in the womb may increase the risk of premature birth, low birthweight and miscarriage or stillbirth. Babies exposed to lead before birth may not be as intelligent as other children the same age or may have learning and behavior problems.
Do not attempt to remove the lead source yourself. Hire a qualified professional to remove the lead from the home. The local building inspector should be able to direct you to a qualified professional in your area.