Lead Exposures To Children

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recently announced a tightening of the lead exposure guidelines for children, especially those children under the age of six. In the past, the limit for child exposure and the trigger for medical monitoring have been 10 micrograms per deciliter of blood. The new guidelines cut that value in half to 5 micrograms per deciliter because some children were showing side effects at 10 micrograms per deciliter of blood or slightly less.


Lead exposure, given sufficient concentrations, can cause severe organ damage or death to anyone. This risk is even greater with babies and toddlers under the age of six and for pregnant women. Exposure to lead and resulting excessive blood lead levels, can cause children to exhibit impaired cognitive function, behavior problems, impaired fetal organ development, reduced intelligence levels, damaged hearing and reduced stature.

So when a young child is exposed to lead, even innocently, he or she will be severely impacted for the rest of their lives unless they receive the proper medical attention quickly. Medical attention includes regular blood lead level measurements and procedures to reduce elevated concentrations to acceptable levels.


When we think of lead exposure to children, we conjure up images of lead-belching industrial smokestacks. While they play a part, the primary lead source is your home. Most excessive blood lead levels in children are the result of lead-containing paint used in the home. The good news here is that lead was banned in household paint in 1978. But older homes, typically those built or remodeled prior to 1960, are usually the culprits. As the home and the paint age, the paint chips or generated dust which also contain lead. The young, crawling child then contacts the lead-bearing dust and puts it in his mouth.

Once ingested, it will immediately impact major organs and the central nervous system. It will also show up in a blood test even quicker. So, if your living conditions match up with this type of home, encourage your pediatrician to perform a basic blood test. As doctors have become more aware of lead exposures, these blood tests have become much more routine.

The second most common source of lead exposure comes from contact with contaminated soil. But you have no spewing smokestacks next to your home, you exclaim. No doubt that’s true, but what was there before you? Both industrial plants that were allowed to belch lead waste over nearby land, and gasoline-saturated soil near an old gas station site can provide lead-contaminated soil. This is also true for any parks you enjoy, so contact your local authorities for feedback there. Fortunately, both the leaking gasoline tanks and the belching smokestacks are now banned by regulations enforced by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and its state counterparts. Again, all that has to happen is for the child to contact and ingest some of that lead.

There are five other sources that could pop up, depending upon where you live and what the local municipality has done about health standards:

1. The local water supply could have more lead (from natural sources or industrial effluent) in it than the level mandated by the EPA. This is unlikely because these standards have been in effect for several years. Simply contact your local water supplier and ask for a copy of their water quality chemical evaluation and they will provide a full breakdown of all your water’s impurities, including lead.

2. Likewise, the air can carry lead as an impurity. The standards for industrial airborne emissions require low levels of impurities like lead and they have been in place for several years as well. Your state or county government has a department that regulates these levels, and they can tell you what the readings are in your area.

3. Canned goods and pottery imported from other countries, especially third world or undeveloped countries, in the form of lead solder, on cans, or in the glazes used to color the pottery. While leaded glass and glazed pottery look nice, they can both be sources of lead contamination when used with foods. Foods that may be slightly acidic, such as tomatoes or wine, tend to leach minerals out of dishes even more than others.

4. Given the industrial safety regulations that have been enforced by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), this last source is unlikely but shouldn’t be overlooked. If either parent works in a plant where lead is used, such as a battery plant, it is possible (though not likely) that some lead might be carried home on the parent’s clothing. Personal hygiene and changing clothes before coming home from work are critical pieces to check for here. If the employer asks for these and other safeguards, you shouldn’t be carrying anything home to your kids. If such safe practices are not observed at your workplace, then you should wash your work clothes when you come each night, and you should contact OSHA or its state equivalent.

5. Fishing weights used to be 100% lead, but this is changing. Many toys and related items imported from China have been found to contain high levels of lead. Check around your home for such items (if they are lead, they can be scratched with a knife) and properly dispose of them.


· Contact your county health department or a local laboratory that can analyze for lead and obtain a wipe kit or get verbal instructions on how to take samples around your home. It is important to ask the lab how they want the samples collected, however, so that they can process the samples quickly, accurately and with minimum expense. Include a few paint chips as samples, too. It’s possible that the county health department may sample for you, and there are testing firms that will do it for a fee.

· Don’t forget to sample the soil around your house, garden and yard. Check to be sure the lab you have chosen can process soil samples, and determine how they want the samples gathered. Check with local authorities about the soil at your favorite park.

· Once the lab results are in, it’s decision time. If the sample results show no contamination beyond legal limits, then you can breathe easily. If both dust and paint chip samples show no lead issues, then you can go on to other things on your to do list. If, however, they show lead levels that need to be addressed, then it’s time to take action. At that point, you or your landlord (depending upon your housing arrangements) should arrange for a firm licensed to handle lead abatement to thoroughly clean the home and to address lead paint issues. Usually, those painted surfaces must be removed, cleaned or contained, depending upon the conditions.

· Until it is possible to take the action cited above, don’t allow children to crawl around on the floor in the contaminated rooms or on contaminated soil outside. Extra attention to keeping your toddler’s hands clean is difficult but appropriate here.

In short, test for lead, then clean up as needed and avoid contaminated areas until they can be corrected.