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Lead exposure and its health effects on children

Dr. M. Vijayalakshmi, M.D (Peds), M.D (USA), F.A.A.P

"Content Source: American Academy of Pediatrics, Medical Journals"
Lead exposure and its health effects on children

Children under the age of six are those at greatest risk of the health effects associated with exposure to lead. They are particularly vulnerable because at that age, their brain and central nervous system are still forming. Lead is a powerful neurotoxin that interferes with the development of these systems as well as the kidney and blood-forming organs. Exposure to lead causes a wide range of health effects.

Even low levels of exposure to lead can result in IQ deficits, learning disabilities, behavioral problems, stunted or slowed growth, and impaired hearing. At increasingly high levels of exposure, a child may suffer kidney damage, become mentally retarded, fall into a coma, and even die from lead poisoning. Lead poisoning has been associated with a significantly increased high-school dropout rate, as well as increases in juvenile delinquency and criminal behavior.

It is often difficult for a parent to realize on their own that their child may have too much lead in their blood. The symptoms of lead poisoning can be subtle-they are often easily confused with other, less worrisome problems. For instance, a child may exhibit symptoms similar to those associated with the flu, such as stomach aches and headaches. Other typical symptoms include irritability and loss of appetite. The only way to know for sure whether or not a child has a lead-related problem is to get the child tested for lead.

Currently, there is no known effective treatment for children who have blood lead levels under 45µg/dL-the vast majority of children exposed to lead. Kids whose lead level is greater than or equal to 45µg/dL should immediately receive chelation therapy, a medical treatment that draws some of the lead out of their system.

One way to reduce the impact of lead exposure is to reduce the amount of lead that gets absorbed or retained by the child. On average, children under six will absorb/retain about 50% of the lead they ingest. That percentage can be reduced through good nutrition, including adequate levels of calcium, iron, vitamin C, and zinc. The consumption of fatty foods should be kept to a minimum, although children under the age of two actually need some fat in their diet. And a child whose stomach is empty will absorb/retain more lead than a child who has just eaten.

Similarly, pregnant women should be careful to minimize their exposure to lead, as lead crosses the placenta and adversely affects the developing fetus.

Sources of Lead
  • Paint: Lead was used in paint to add color, improve the ability of the paint to hide the surface it covers, and to make it last longer. In 1978 United States government banned lead paint for use in homes, still Lead based paint may be sold in many countries. Older paints are probably lead-based. Painted toys and furniture may also contain lead-based paint. Lead-based paint becomes dangerous when it chips, turns into dust, or gets into the soil.
  • Dust: Lead dust is the most common way that people are exposed to lead. Inside the home, most lead dust comes from chipping and flaking paint or when paint is scraped, sanded, or disturbed during home remodeling. Chipping and peeling paint is found mostly on surfaces that rub or bump up against another surface. These surfaces include doors and windows. Young children usually get exposed to lead when they put something with lead dust on it into their mouths. Lead dust may not be visible to the naked eye.
  • Soil: Earlier companies used to add lead to gasoline. Lead particles escaped from car exhaust systems and went into the air. This lead fell to the ground and mixed with soil near roads. The lead is still there today. Homes near busy streets may have high levels of lead in the soil. Today, lead still comes from metal smelting, battery manufacturing, and other factories that use lead. This lead gets into the air and then mixes with the soil near homes, especially if the home is near one of these sources. Flaking lead-based paint on the outside of buildings can also mix with the soil close to buildings. Lead-based paint mixing with soil is a big problem during home remodeling if workers are not careful. Once the soil has lead in it, wind can stir up lead dust, and blow it into homes and yards. Cities are at highest risk for unsafe levels of lead in soils.
  • Drinking Water: Lead is unusual among drinking water contaminants in that it seldom occurs naturally in water supplies like rivers and lakes. Lead enters drinking water primarily as a result of the corrosion, or wearing away, of materials containing lead in the water distribution system and household or building plumbing. These materials include lead-based solder used to join copper pipe, brass and chrome plated brass faucets, and in some cases, pipes made of lead that connect houses and buildings to water mains. Older construction may still have plumbing that has the potential to contribute lead to drinking water.
  • The workplace and hobbies: People exposed to lead at work may bring lead home on their clothes, shoes, hair, or skin. Some jobs that expose people to lead include home improvement, painting and refinishing, car or radiator repair, plumbing, construction, welding and cutting, electronics, municipal waste incineration, battery manufacturing, lead compound manufacturing, rubber products and plastics manufacturing, lead smelting and refining, working in brass or bronze foundries, demolition, and working with scrap metal. Some hobbies also use lead. These hobbies include making pottery, stained glass, fish sinkers, and refinishing furniture.
  • Food in cans that are sealed with lead solder: In 1995 the United States banned the use of lead solder on cans. But lead solder can still be found on cans made in other countries. These cans usually have wide seams, and the silver-gray solder along the seams contains the lead. Over time the lead gets into the food. This happens faster after the can has been opened. Foods that are acidic cause lead to get into the food faster.
  • Lead-glazed ceramics, china, leaded crystal glassware: Lead may get into foods or liquids that have been stored in ceramics, pottery, china or crystal with lead in it. Lead-glazed dishes usually come from other countries.
  • Metal jewelry: Lead has been found in inexpensive children's jewelry made and sold in India. It also has been found in inexpensive metal amulets worn for good luck or protection. Some costume jewelry designed for adults has also been found to contain lead. It is important to make sure that children don't handle or mouth any jewelry.
  • Folk medicines, non-standardized Ayurvedic medicines and cosmetics: Some folk medicines contain lead. Some non-standardized Ayurvedic medicines that are NOT made by reputed and standardized manufactures may contain Lead. Some other common sources of lead: Batteries, radiators for cars and trucks, and some colors of ink also contain lead.
Can It Be Prevented and How?

Yes. The key is stopping children from coming into contact with lead and identifying and treating children who have been poisoned by lead. Lead hazards in a child's environment must be identified and eliminated. Public and health care professionals need to be educated about lead poisoning and how to prevent it. Children who are at risk for lead poisoning need to be identified, tested, and if necessary, treated. A lack of knowledge about lead poisoning and its causes often delays parents from having their children tested or from taking appropriate safety measures.

  • Parents or guardians concerned about a child's exposure to lead can ask a doctor to test the child.
  • Housekeeping practices such as damp-mopping floors, damp-wiping surfaces, and frequently washing a child's hands, pacifiers, and toys can minimize exposure to lead.
  • People need to take steps to prevent lead poisoning of workers and residents before and during renovation of lead-containing structures.
  • People whose work or hobbies involve using lead-containing products should take basic precautions to decrease their exposure to lead and to prevent carrying lead home on their clothes, skin, or hair (e.g., showering and changing clothes after finishing the task).