About 500,000 young children in the U.S. have elevated levels of lead in their blood (above 5 micrograms per deciliter), according to the Centers for Disease Control. The effects of lead exposure cannot be reversed, and extremely high levels of lead poisoning may result in coma or death.
Lead poisoning occurs when someone swallows a lead item or breathes lead dust. Children younger than 6 are particularly at risk because they tend to put things in their mouth, including potentially lead-contaminated objects and hands that may have touched lead-dusted surfaces.
One of the biggest culprits of lead poisoning is lead-based paint, which the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) banned in residential housing in 1978. If your house was built before 1978, you’re at greater risk for lead exposure. However, simply living in a house that contains lead-based paint isn’t enough to cause lead poisoning — you still have to ingest the paint or its dust particles.
Other lead sources include soil (contaminated from old paint or past emissions of leaded gasoline), tap water from lead pipes, dust chips from toys or furniture, lead bullets, fishing sinkers and certain batteries.
Lead poisoning typically builds up over time after repeated exposure, without any obvious symptoms. Signs of lead poisoning in children may include poor appetite, vomiting, constipation, crankiness, loss of energy, sleeplessness, and behavioral or learning problems.
Children with elevated levels of lead may suffer from the following:
- Damage to the brain and nervous system
- Behavioral and learning problems
- Slowed growth
- Hearing problems
In adults, lead poisoning may cause the following:
- Difficulties during pregnancy
- Reproductive problems
- High blood pressure
- Digestive disorders
- Memory and concentration problems
- Muscle and joint pain
The goal is to prevent lead exposure before anyone comes in contact with a contaminant.
Here are nine ways to keep your family safe:
- Contact your local health department about testing your home for lead.
- Keep your child away from peeling paint or surfaces that may be covered with lead-based paint.
- If you are renovating a house built before 1978, keep children and pregnant women out of the home during repairs.
- Wash children’s hands frequently and toys regularly.
- Regularly wet-mop floors and wet-wipe windows, which may collect lead dust.
- Don’t wear shoes in the house, as footwear may track contaminated soil indoors.
- Use only cold water from the tap for cooking and drinking, because hot water is more likely to contain more lead.
- Avoid eating candy imported from Mexico, which may contain lead. (The FDA has issued a warning about this.)
- Pay attention to toy recalls posted by the CPSC. (If you own a recalled toy, find out how to properly dispose of it.)
If you notice severe symptoms from possible lead exposure, like vomiting or seizures, call 911. If you suspect that your child has been exposed to low-level lead, contact your primary care provider. She can perform a blood test to detect high levels of lead.