Lead Poisoning: What You Should Know

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Lead poisoning and water contamination in Flint, Michigan has been a focus in the news. Understandably, parents are concerned. The New York Times recently reported that unsafe lead levels in tap water are not limited to Flint. Laboratory tests have also found dangerously high levels of lead in multiple cities’ tap water: Sebring, OH (2015); Washington, D.C. (2001); Durham and Greenville, NC (2006); Columbia, SC (2005); and Jackson, MS (2015).

Even purified, “safe” water often travels to homes through rusting, corroded pipes. Although Congress banned lead water pipes 30 years ago, between 3.3 and 10 million older pipes remain throughout the country, potentially leaching lead and other harmful contaminants into our kitchen sinks, bathtubs and drinking water.

Lead is a very strong poison

Cindee Ivker

Cindee Ivker, MD, FAAP

Lead poisoning occurs when high levels of lead build up in the body, usually over a period of months or years. Even small amounts of lead can cause serious health issues.

Children under the age of 6 are most vulnerable to lead poisoning. This is because smaller children are more likely to chew on paint chips, touch things containing lead and put their hands in their mouths.  Lead is much more harmful to children than adults because it can affect children’s developing nerves and brains. The younger the child, the more harmful lead can be. Unborn children are the most vulnerable.

Where is lead found?

  • Houses painted before 1978. Even if the paint is not peeling, it can still pose a lead hazard. Lead paint is very dangerous when it is being stripped or sanded because fine lead dust is released into the air. Infants and children living in pre-1960s housing (when paint often contained lead) have the highest risk of lead poisoning.
  • Toys and furniture painted before 1976
  • Painted toys and decorations made outside the U.S.
  • Lead bullets, fishing sinkers, curtain weights
  • Plumbing, pipes, and faucets
  • Soil contaminated by decades of car exhaust or years of house paint scrapings. Lead is more common in soil near highways and houses.
  • Hobbies involving soldering, stained glass, jewelry making, pottery glazing, and miniature lead figures (always look at labels)
  • Children’s paint sets and art supplies (always look at labels)
  • Pewter pitchers and dinnerware
  • Storage batteries

What are the symptoms of lead poisoning?

In its initial stages, it may be hard to detect lead poisoning. Signs and symptoms do not usually appear until high levels have accumulated in the body. The most common symptoms are:

  • Developmental delays and learning disabilities
  • Irritability and fatigue
  • Loss of appetite and abdominal pain
  • Weight loss
  • Vomiting
  • Constipation
  • Hearing loss
  • At very high levels, lead poisoning can be fatal

The greatest risk of lead poisoning is to the brain

The damage caused to the brain by lead poisoning can be irreversible. Other body systems, including the kidneys and nervous system, can also be seriously involved.

How to know if your child has lead poisoning

To find out if your child has been exposed to lead and possibly has lead poisoning, your pediatrician will perform a blood test at age 1 and again at age 2. This timing is very important because this is the age when brain development is rapid and a child’s activity level greatly increases.

If you have recently moved or are renovating an older house, you should consider having your child lead tested, regardless of his/her age.

If your child has a sibling or friend who has lead poisoning, your child should be tested. 

What to do if your child has a high lead level

The first thing to do is to rely on the information provided by your physician. He or she will guide you through the entire process and arrange for your family to be evaluated and treated by the regional lead treatment center near you.

Treatment involves many steps and is based on each individual’s lab results. First and foremost, the lead must be removed from the environment in which you live and socialize. Often, simply avoiding exposure is enough treatment for lower levels of lead poisoning. More extensive treatment is available through the regional lead treatment centers in your area.

How to prevent lead poisoning

  • Thoroughly wash your child’s hands after outdoor play, before eating and at bedtime.
  •  Clean dusty surfaces.
  •  If you have older plumbing with lead pipes in your house, run cold water for at least a minute before using. Do not use hot tap water to make baby formula or for cooking.
  •  Limit playing in soil. A sandbox is a better option.
  •  If you are trying to remove old paint in an older home, do not sand it as the particles may contain lead and the air will become contaminated.
  •  Consult your pediatric care team for further questions.

If you are concerned about lead poisoning, come see us

For more information about lead poisoning, and/or to get you and your family tested, please contact any of our 12 convenient Westchester Health Pediatrics locations. We’re here for you and will do everything we can to keep you and your family healthy.

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By Cindee J. Ivker, MD, FAAP, Chief of Pediatrics at White Plains Hospital and a pediatrician with Westchester Health Pediatrics.

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About the Author: ML Ball