Protect your child's health with a lead test
Here’s what you need to know about this heavy metal — and how to keep your kids safe.
Toys, dirt, carpet fuzz. Babies and toddlers are notorious for putting things in their mouths —anything they can get their hands on. And even as children get older, they still often play on the floor and resist washing their hands. Those are some of the reasons that children, especially younger ones, are sometimes at risk for lead poisoning.
Lead poisoning can happen when kids are exposed to this heavy metal through dust from peeling or chipped leaded paint, says Erin Nozetz, M.D., a pediatrician and the associate medical director of the lead toxicity clinic at Yale New Haven Hospital.
Children who are 6 years of age and younger are most at risk, for a few important reasons:
- Their bodies are still developing.
- They absorb the chemical more readily than adults.
- They’re more likely to touch lead-contaminated dust or surfaces.
And the consequences are serious: High levels of lead can cause brain and nervous system damage, slowed growth, and problems with speech, hearing, learning, and focus.
Although lead poisoning has (thankfully) declined in the last few decades, it remains a concern for many parents. Luckily, there are many ways to limit your household’s exposure to lead. Here’s what to look for, and what you can do to cut your family’s risk.
How are kids exposed to lead?
The risk of lead poisoning varies from place to place. The risk of exposure is often higher in older homes and historically industrial neighborhoods. Lead paint for homes was banned in the United States in 1978, but many older homes still contain lead-based paint. That’s especially true on windows, doors, porches, steps, and fences, which tend to be repainted less often.
“If the leaded paint is intact, it’s not a problem. But if there is chipping or peeling paint, that creates dust that blows lead around,” Dr. Nozetz says.
About 24 million homes have deteriorated lead paint and high levels of lead-contaminated household dust, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Dust from peeling lead paint can also blow into yards or get tracked into homes on the bottom of people’s shoes, Dr. Nozetz adds. Younger children may also put their mouths on window frames or other surfaces with peeling paint. The fact that lead paint can have a sweet taste makes this more likely.
Know the facts about lead poisoning
- A blood lead test is the only way to know if your child has lead poisoning.
- Children under six years old are most at risk for lead poisoning.
- Sources of lead poisoning may include:
‒ Lead paint in homes built before 1978
‒ Imported candy and candy wrappers
‒ Glazed pots and soil
‒ Tap water from lead pipes
‒ Toys with lead paint
‒ Leaded gasoline
‒ Old or recycled electronics
“Parents who work in industries where they might be exposed to lead, like construction and bullet manufacturing, might also bring lead home on their clothes and shoes [without realizing it],” Dr. Nozetz says.
A blood lead test is the only way to know if your child has lead poisoning. If you’re concerned about your child’s risk or have further questions, don’t hesitate to reach out to your child’s doctor.
How can you reduce the risks?
If your home was built before 1978, look around for chipped or peeling paint both inside and out, especially around window frames, windowsills, and porch steps.
“If you notice that the pattern of the cracking paint looks similar to an alligator skin, that almost certainly means there is lead in the paint,” Dr. Nozetz says.
In that case, get in touch with your local health department to be connected to a certified lead inspector, and talk to your child’s pediatrician. When possible, keep your children away from areas of peeling paint and regularly wipe down floors and surfaces with a wet cloth.
Here are some resources you may find useful:
- Childhood Lead poisoning Prevention Program (CDC)
- Child Developmental Screening (CDC)
- National Lead Information Center: 1-800-424-LEAD (1-800-424-5323)
- (for non-Philadelphia residents)
- Philadelphia Department of Public Health: 215-685-2788 (for Philadelphia residents)
Other ways you can minimize your exposure to lead:
- Avoid having your children play with older toys.
- Wash your child’s toys and hands regularly with soap and water.
- Use a National Sanitation Foundation-approved lead water filter. You can also contact your local Environmental Protection Agency department to have your water tested for lead.
- Stick to cold water from the tap for cooking or drinking. “If you need hot water, heat the cold water on the stove,” Dr. Nozetz says. “Hot water can leach lead from old piping.”
- Take your shoes off when you come into the house.
- Serve healthful meals that include a variety of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and protein-rich foods. This is easier said than done, sure, but a well-balanced diet can help limit the absorption of lead if your child is exposed, says Dr. Nozetz. Of particular importance are calcium-rich foods (like milk, yogurt, green leafy vegetables, and canned sardines), iron-rich foods (think lean red meats, beans and lentils, and iron-fortified cereals and breads), and foods full of vitamin C like citrus, tomatoes, potatoes, and peppers.
- Clean up during and after renovation projects or window replacements, which can create lead-based dust.
Lead poisoning warning signs and testing
One of the reasons that lead poisoning can go unnoticed for a long time is that even at high levels, it often doesn’t cause any symptoms, Dr. Nozetz says. Anemia is one of the few common symptoms of short-term exposure.
“We worry most about the long-term effects because lead crosses into the brain and can interfere with communication between neurons. This can lead to learning difficulties, autism, behavior changes, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD),” adds Dr. Nozetz.
A blood lead test is the only way to know if your child has lead poisoning, which is why it’s important to be proactive about preventing lead exposure and to have your child’s blood tested. Children should be tested by 12 months of age, and again at 24 months of age. Schedule an appointment with your child’s doctor for a blood lead test.
“It is crucial for children to be screened for lead poisoning,” urges Dr. Nozetz. No matter the result, knowledge is power. And you can take action to protect your loved ones — big and small.