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The Dangers of Lead for Your Child — and Its Many Sources

Children should be screened for lead poisoning starting at ages 1 and 2

toddler playing with legos

If you and your family live in an older home, your children might be at risk for lead poisoning. Lead poisoning is a serious condition that can irreversibly damage your child’s nervous system, brain and other organs. In addition to health problems, elevated levels of lead can cause learning disabilities and behavior problems that affect a child’s ability to pay attention.

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Lead is a poisonous metal that is especially dangerous to babies and young children, says pediatrician Maria Tang, MD. It is most often found in lead-based paint, in dust that forms when lead-based paint is scraped, sanded or worn down through use, and in soil that becomes contaminated with peeling, lead-based paint. Children living in homes built before 1978 or older homes undergoing renovation are at a higher risk for lead exposure due to lead-contaminated house dust and soil.

Concerns for lead poisoning are higher right now given the additional time children spent at home during the past year due to COVID-19. As a parent, make sure to do an extra check around the house for potential sources of lead.

Lead can also be found in:

  • Water.
  • Leaded crystal glassware.
  • Lead-glazed pottery and ceramic ware.
  • Some hobby equipment.
  • Cosmetics, such as kohl.
  • Home remedies such as greta, a Mexican folk remedy taken commonly for stomachache or intestinal illness, and azarcon, a folk remedy that usually contains substantial amounts of lead.
  • Painted toys and furniture, especially if they are older.

Lead paint gets into children’s systems when they:

  • Eat or handle peeling paint chips and flakes that contain lead.
  • Put their hands, toys and other items covered with lead dust in their mouths.
  • Breathe lead dust.
  • Chew on windowsills, furniture and door frames and other items covered with lead-based paint.
  • Drink water from older water pipes made from lead.

Many factors can affect how much lead is absorbed, but inhaled lead is more likely to be absorbed than ingested lead. Lead attaches to red blood cells, then moves into the soft tissues, such as the liver and lungs. If lead is absorbed into your bones, it can stay there for decades and recirculate in your blood if a bone is broken.

“Unfortunately, most cases of lead poisoning have no symptoms,” Dr. Tang says.

When does my child need to get screened for lead exposure?

Every child should be screened for lead exposure at ages 1 and 2. This is based on recommendations from the American Academy of Pediatrics.

“Lead poisoning continues to be one of the most preventable public health problems,” Dr. Tang says. “The banning of leaded gas in 1986 and lead-based paints in 1978 have contributed to the dramatic decrease in children’s lead blood levels over the past four decades,” she says.

“But all children who are at risk for lead exposure or live in a high-risk zip code area should still get tested for lead,” Dr. Tang says. “Pregnant people also should seek the screening,” she says.

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Your doctor can order a blood test or it can be performed at your local health department. Children who are covered by Medicaid are eligible for free blood screening and are required by many states’ laws to get one.

“If your child’s blood-lead levels are too high, your doctor can start medical treatment to remove the lead,” Dr. Tang says. “If not treated, elevated levels of lead have been shown to affect a child’s academic achievement.”

How to reduce your child’s exposure to lead

  • Make sure that your child eats healthy foods that are high in iron, calcium and vitamin C, which help protect against lead poisoning.
  • If you live in a house or apartment built before 1978, talk to your state or local health department about having your home’s paint and dust tested for lead. Call 1-800-424-LEAD for more information.
  • If you rent your home, talk to your landlord about peeling and flaking paint. Call the health department if the paint is not safely repaired.
  • Frequently wash your child’s hands, bottles, pacifiers and toys.
  • Always wash your hands before eating.
  • Always wipe your feet before entering the house.
  • Wipe floors and other surfaces with a damp mop or cloth on a regular basis.
  • Let tap water run for one minute before using.
  • Use only cold tap water for drinking, cooking and for making baby formula because hot tap water is more likely to contain higher levels of lead.
  • Don’t try to remove lead-based paint yourself.
  • Avoid any home remedies that contain lead.

If you’re pregnant, make sure to avoid exposure to lead, since it can affect fetal development.

You are not able to see, smell, or taste lead in tap water. The only way to know if you have your water tested. You can call the Safe Drinking Water Hotline at 1-800-426-4791 to find out if your water needs to be tested.

For more information, visit the Centers for Disease Control website.

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