Each year, thousands of American children are diagnosed with lead poisoning. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 500 thousand kids between one and five years old have blood lead levels high enough to damage their health. Children under the age of six are at a higher risk for lead poisoning because they tend to put their hands and other objects in their mouth, which may contain lead.
What is Lead Poisoning?
Lead is a heavy metal that occurs naturally and may be used in anything from construction to batteries. It’s toxic to everyone, but unborn babies and young children are at the greatest risk. At very high levels, lead exposure can cause seizures, coma and even death. Even a small amount of lead can affect your child’s health and cause damage to their brain and nervous system and affect the following areas:
Lead poisoning occurs when too much lead is absorbed into the body. It is common for children with lead poisoning not to show any symptoms, but some children may have:
Loss of appetite
Feeling weak or tired
Vomiting or upset stomach
Pale skin from anemia (a lack of healthy red blood cells)
Complaints of a metallic taste in their mouth
Muscle and joint weakness or pain
When Should You Test Your Child for Lead Poisoning?
It is important to test for lead poisoning if you live in a building that was built before the late 1970s, or if your child eats non-food items, like dirt or paint flakes. If lead poisoning is suspected, your child’s pediatrician can order a simple blood test. If one child tests positive for lead, all children in the household should be tested, even if they don’t have symptoms.
Protecting Against Lead Poisoning
Lead poisoning is 100 percent preventable. Here are a few tips to protect your family from lead poisoning:
Check and Replace Old Paint: It’s estimated that 24 million homes in the U.S. have deteriorating lead-based paint and lead-contaminated house dust. This is especially true for homes built before 1978 because many contained lead-based paint, before it was banned. When the paint peels and cracks, it creates dust that can poison children when they breathe it in or swallow it. If you suspect that your house may be contaminated, your local health department can test your home and provide solutions for decontamination. Peeling paint and chewable surfaces with lead-based paint should be removed.
Inspect Your Plumbing: Older homes built before the 1970s may also have copper pipes with lead-fused joints. When water sits in the pipes, lead can leak into the water making it unsafe for consumption. You can limit lead exposure by using only cold water for drinking and food preparation and let the faucet run for 30 seconds before using. Hot water is especially prone to absorbing lead. While it’s ok to bathe in hot water, don’t drink it or use it to prepare meals or baby formula. Your health department or water company can help get your water tested for lead. Most of the lead found in household water comes from the plumbing in the house, not the local water supply.
Clean Up Often: Dust your house often by wiping down floors and other surfaces, including toys, with a wet mop or wet cloth to reduce your child’s risk of coming into contact with lead or lead-contaminated dust. Hands should be washed frequently, especially after cleaning or playing outdoors. Family members and guests should take off their shoes before entering the house to prevent bringing in lead-contaminated soil.
Make Playtime Safe: Make sure your children’s toys are free of lead paint by checking for product recalls involving items, like toys or jewelry, which contain lead. It’s also important to prevent children from playing in bare soil that could contain lead. Instead, plant grass or cover the area with grass seed, mulch or wood chips. Consider letting your child play in a sandbox, but be sure to cover it when it’s not in use to keep animals out.
Watch What Your Child Eats and Drinks: Candies, food and drinks that are imported from other countries and traditional home remedies can all contain lead. Avoid using cookware, dishes and food storage containers that are not shown to be lead-free.
Don’t Bring Lead Home After Hobbies or Work: Parents can often bring lead home through their job or hobbies. If you work in areas such as construction/demolition/renovation, soldering, recycling, radiator repair, painting, pottery-making or stained-glass-making, you should shower and change clothes as soon as possible after finishing the task.
Renovate Safely: Children and pregnant women should not be around renovation work at houses built before 1978. Home repair activities and even clean up work in older homes can shift around old paint that is contaminated with lead and leave debris in the area.
Create Barriers: Close and lock doors to keep children away from areas with chipping paint. You can also use duct tape or contact paper to cover holes or to prevent access to other sources of lead.
Treating Lead Poisoning
If your child develops lead poisoning, it can be treated. For small amounts of lead, reducing exposure is the key – eventually all of the lead will be eliminated from the body. Severe cases may require hospitalization and medication to help the body remove the lead. Your pediatrician may recommend that your child take a supplement if there is not enough iron, calcium or Vitamin C in their diet. The presence of these substances helps to block the intake of lead. Eating regular meals can also slow lead absorption.
Petra Vybiralova is the Safe Kids Supervisor at All Children’s Hospital Johns Hopkins Medicine. Petra Vybiralova is the supervisor for the Suncoast Safe Kids Coalition, led by All Children’s Hospital Johns Hopkins Medicine. This multi-county coalition works to prevent injuries and deaths of children in the greater Tampa Bay area. For more safety tips visits www.allkids.org/safekids