Steps You Can Take to Prevent Lead Poisoning in Your Infant and Toddler

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The national news has been full of stories about the water crisis in Flint, Michigan over the past several years. The water from the Flint river contained high levels of lead, and poisoned many of the city’s residents. Although this was an extreme case, lead poisoning can happen anywhere, and the usual source is not water, but old paint. Even if you have repainted your home, the layers of lead paint underneath the newer paint can still poison your child. Make sure you take steps to prevent lead poisoning.

No Safe Level

Unlike other heavy metals, such as iron and zinc, lead plays no helpful role in human physiology. After years of studies, experts have determined that there is no safe level of lead in human blood. It is virtually impossible to have a lead level of zero, however, so the goal is to have as low a level as possible.

Even lead levels <5 µg/dl in the blood can cause problems in children, such as lower IQ, poor academic performance, attention problems, antisocial behaviors, delayed puberty, and poor kidney function. Lead levels <10 µg/dl can cause all of the above as well as poor growth and decreased hearing.

Much higher levels, which are rarely seen now, can cause abdominal pain, vomiting, constipation, anemia, and neurological damage.

Children are more susceptible to lead’s toxic effects, partly due to their increased uptake of lead compared to adults. In addition, children are obviously still developing at a rapid rate, so the effects of lead on the nervous system are intensified.

And pregnant women can get lead poisoning, too, leading to miscarriage, low birth weight, and poor growth in the children after birth. For more information about lead poisoning in pregnancy and what you can do to avoid it, see this post elsewhere in The Pulse.

Sources of Lead

About 70% of the elevated blood lead levels in this country are due to lead paint. Children who live in homes in disrepair with peeling or cracked paint on the walls are most at risk. But even in homes which are well-maintained, children can be exposed to lead paint dust.

Lead was banned from US paint in 1978. Almost all homes built before 1978 have lead paint in them, often under layers of non-lead paint. But every time a door is closed or a window is raised, tiny dust particles of lead-based paint get released. This dust is then ingested by children, who are prone to put objects in their mouth, which results in lead poisoning.

Soil is another important source of lead for children, especially near older homes with decaying paint on the exterior or near heavily trafficked streets due to past use of lead in gasoline.

Most drinking water does not have unsafe levels of lead, but in older homes with lead pipes or lead service lines, the amount can be quite high. And for infants who ingest a lot of water with their formula, the water can be a significant contributor to lead exposure.

Sometimes parents bring the lead home from work on their clothes or bodies. Occupations that involve lead include construction, auto repair, painting, mining, battery manufacturing, plumbing, firing range use, and ship building.

Hobbies practiced by parents or children can be a source of lead exposure, such as soldering stained glass, pottery glazing, or jewelry making.

Uncommon sources of lead include traditional folk remedies (greta, azarcon, ghasard, ba-baw-saw), food (candy with the ingredient tamarind from Mexico), cosmetics (Sindoor or Tiro), children’s paint sets or art supplies, pewter pitchers, some ceramic dinnerware or food containers (especially if made in another country), and toy jewelry if swallowed.

Children not only put objects in their mouth, but they often have pica, a condition in which they eat non-edible substances. Pregnant women also sometimes have pica, which puts them and their fetuses at risk for lead poisoning.

What Can I Do?

Take the following steps to help your child avoid lead poisoning:

  • Don’t scrape or sand paint in your home: even if you think the paint is safe, there may be lead based paint underneath.
  • If you see paint chips or dust in window sills or on floors, clean them up with a wet cloth.
  • Clean painted areas with soap and water, and cover any peeling or flaking paint with new paint, duct tape, or contact paper.
  • Make sure any renovation projects are done by a certified professional who knows how to follow lead-safe practices. Check the EPA website to learn more.
  • When you or your child come in from outside, wipe your feet and remove your shoes.
  • If your occupation involves lead, be sure to change clothes before picking up or playing with your child, and consider showering after work.
  • Because lead is more prevalent in hot water, use cold water to cook or drink or make the baby’s formula.
  • Ask your local water department if there is lead in your water.
  • Avoid boiling water excessively to drink as this may actually increase the concentration of lead in the water.
  • Don’t use ceramic food containers or dishes if they were made in another country.
  • Ask your doctor if your child needs a blood test to check for lead.
  • If you are pregnant and have pica, talk to your doctor. It’s more common than you think, and your doctor can test you for lead exposure.

Ruben Rucoba
Dr. Rucoba has over 25 years of experience as a primary care pediatrician after completing medical school at the University of California, San Francisco. His clinical areas of expertise include caring for children with special health care needs and assisting families with international adoption. He has been a freelance medical writer since 2010, writing for health websites, continuing medical education providers, and various print outlets. He currently works at Wheaton Pediatrics in the suburbs of Chicago, where he lives with his wife and four daughters, including a set of twins.

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