Lead poisoning remains the most common environmental hazard for children throughout the United States, affecting approximately 240,000 children ages six years and younger.
Lead is a metal found in the environment that can be neurotoxic and carcinogenic to humans. It is inhaled or ingested and carried throughout the body in the bloodstream. All organ systems are susceptible to damage. Pregnant women, babies, and children under six years of age are especially vulnerable.
During pregnancy, lead poisoning can result in spontaneous abortions, stillbirth, and low birth weight. Lead stored long-term in bones and teeth can also get released back into the bloodstream and compromise fetal brain development. Lead poisoning disrupts normal brain development in infancy and early childhood when major bodily systems are newly forming and developing. Even low levels of lead poisoning can lead to lower IQ, learning disabilities, behavioral problems (e.g., hyperactivity, aggressive behavior), speech delay, and hearing loss. High levels of lead poisoning can lead to irreversible brain damage and even death.
What We Know About Lead
Lead gets into the body most commonly when children ingest the lead that is in paint chips, dust, drinking water, and dirt that contains lead paint chips or dust. There is no safe level—children can be harmed by very small amounts. The Centers for Disease Control sets the level of concern at 5 g/dL, or 5 micrograms per deciliter. (A microgram is approximately 1/1000 of a grain of sugar and a deciliter equals a half cup.) Studies show that even levels of exposure below 10 g/dL can interfere with healthy brain development and can lead to lower IQ, which factored into the CDC’s decision to decrease the level in January 2012. Symptoms of lead poisoning in children are generally missed until lead levels become dangerously high. By this time, brain damage is permanent. The only way to know your child’s lead level is to have your pediatrician do a blood test. Blood tests for lead poisoning by your child’s pediatrician should begin at six months and be repeated every year from age one to six years.
What You Can Do
The only way to know your child’s lead level is to get a blood test done by your pediatrician. If a problem is found early, much can be done to reduce lead exposure and prevent serious health problems. In addition, follow the recommendations below for minimizing your child’s exposure to lead and nourishing your child in ways that can help protect him or her from adverse health effects of lead exposure.
Test Your Child for Lead
Make sure your pediatrician tests your child’s blood for lead at six months and repeats this test at every annual check-up from one to six years of age.
Call your pediatrician for the test results. Ask what your child’s blood lead level is, and if that level is normal. If it isn’t, ask your pediatrician what to do to lower your child’s lead level. Also ask when your child should get another blood test.
Tell your pediatrician about any peeling paint at home or other possible lead hazards.
Reduce and Eliminate Lead Paint and Dust
Lead paint was used inside homes in the United States until 1978. This paint may still be present beneath layers of new paint. If it remains encased by new paint, there is no hazard. However, lead is released into the environment when old paint chips, flakes, peels, or is ground into sweet-tasting dust by doors and windows opening and closing. Home renovations often release a lot of lead paint into the environment. To be safe:
Wash your child’s hands often, especially after playing, and before eating and sleeping.
Clean your home often and thoroughly.
Clean your child’s toys often and thoroughly.
Get your home inspected for lead and have your drinking water tested for lead.
Improve Your Drinking Water
Lead used in old water pipes can leach into water, as can leaded solder which was legal to use on residential drinking water pipes through the 1980’s. Lead solder is still legal today for commercial use. And all faucets and plumbing fittings are still allowed to contain up to 8 percent lead. Lead cannot be boiled out of water. To be safe:
Run water for 30 seconds until cool water becomes cold. This flushes out water sitting in pipes that could be collecting lead.
Always use cold water for drinking, cooking, and making baby formula. Hot water draws out more lead from pipes than cold water.
Use a water filtration system.
Get your drinking water tested for lead. Call EPA’s Safe Drinking Water Hotline, 1-800-426-4791.
Replace old water pipes that are lined with lead.
Feed Your Child Healthy Foods
Good nutrition helps children’s bodies resist lead. Feed your child foods that are high in iron, calcium and vitamin C to strengthen his or her body’s resistance to adverse health effects of any lead exposure.
Foods rich in iron include: Chicken, turkey, lean beef, liver; cooked dried beans or peas, baked beans, chili, limas, butter beans, black-eyed peas; iron-fortified cereals; baked potato with skin; greens and spinach; raisins, nuts and seeds (sunflower or pumpkin seeds)
Foods rich in calcium (skim or low-fat milk products are best) include: milk, cheese, yogurt; greens and kale; ice milk; hot chocolate or pudding
Foods rich in vitamin C include: Oranges, grapefruit, tangerines, strawberries, cantaloupe; juices—orange, grapefruit, lemonade; tomatoes; bell peppers; potatoes and sweet potatoes baked in their skins; greens and kale
Add a food or drink containing vitamin C to every meal.
Cook food in iron pots and pans to add iron to your child’s diet.
Limit your child’s intake of foods high in fats and oils which make it easier for the body to absorb lead. These include: butter, oil and lard; scrapple; French fries, chips and other high-fat “junk food”; bacon and sausage; and fried foods. Remove meat fat and chicken skin before serving.
Feed your child five or six small meals daily instead of three larger meals. A child with an empty stomach will absorb more lead into his or her body.
Do not cook, serve or store food in imported pottery and do not store food in containers made of ceramic, leaded crystal, or china.
Be Careful With Costume Jewelry
Costume jewelry often contains lead. Avoid buying costume jewelry for your child—especially jewelry that is made in China, or has white fake pearls, plastic cords, or dull metallic parts. Keep costume jewelry away from children who put toys in their mouth or suck their thumb. If you do buy your child costume jewelry, avoid dollar stores and other discount stores. And stay aware of product recalls, as large companies and more upscale stores also sell costume jewelry containing lead.