Many Kids Still Exposed to Lead Poisoning

This is one of those health concerns you heard a lot about in the 70s and 80s when the government began to take an active role in reducing the amount of lead in our everyday environment.

As long ago as 1904, child lead poisoning was linked to lead-based paints, but it wasnt until 1971 that the Lead-Based Paint Poisoning Prevention Act was passed. Finally in 1978, lead-based paint was banned.  The inside and outside of homes built before then most likely were painted with a lead based paint. Since lead is slightly sweet to the taste children are tempted to put fallen paint chips, or peeled chips, into their mouths.

Lead was also an additive used in gasoline till 1986 when it was phased out of production. Tons of lead was released into the atmosphere and eventually found its way into the dirt of playgrounds, and yards.

The banning of lead in these two areas alone has dramatically reduced the number of American children with elevated blood lead levels. Thats extremely good news because lead poisoning can have terrible consequences for children and adults.

But, despite the progress that has been made in the last four decades, about 2.6% of U.S. children aged 1 to 5 years old still have too much lead in their systems, according to a new report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Surveys conducted between 2007 and 2010 show that more than half a million children had blood lead levels equal to or above the recommended 5 micrograms per deciliter (mg/dl). A level at, or higher than 5 mcg/dl, is considered a level of concern by the CDC.

Children can be exposed to lead by inhaling it, swallowing it or in rare cases absorbing it through the skin. In the bloodstream it can damage red blood cells, limiting their ability to carry oxygen to the organs and tissues that need it. Lead can end up in the bones and interfere with calcium absorption. It can severely affect mental and physical development and at very high levels, lead poisoning can be fatal.

The report also noted that there are persistent differences in the blood lead levels of children in different racial/ethnic and income groups that are linked to disparities in housing quality, environmental conditions, nutrition and other factors.

Lead can be found in drinking water particularly in homes built before 1986. These homes are more likely to have lead pipes. Tap water can be contaminated through the corrosion of plumbing materials. The most common problem is with brass or chrome-plated brass faucets and fixtures that can leach significant amounts of lead into the water, especially hot water.

Another source where children can be exposed to lead is by chewing or sucking on toys. Toys that have been made in other countries and then imported to the U.S. may contain lead. The CDC has issued hundreds, if not thousands, of recalls for toys and jewelry with moderate to high levels of lead. China appears to be the biggest offender when it comes to adding lead in its childrens toy and jewelry products. Antique toys can also contain lead paint.

Eliminating lead from house paints, gasoline and plumbing has had a profound affect on reducing lead levels in our children. But lead continues to be around and parents should be aware that it is not like a virus or bacteria that has been eradicated from our daily lives.

Except when a child swallows something that has a very high lead content, lead poisoning usually occurs over a period of time with the repeated ingestion of low levels of lead. Children may not show signs of lead poisoning until symptoms appear and even those can mimic other health problems. Its really a good idea to have your child tested for lead blood levels to make sure.

Signs of lead poisoning usually appear as:

  • Irritability or behavioral problems
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Headaches
  • Loss of appetite
  • Weight loss
  • Sluggishness or fatigue
  • Abdominal pain
  • Vomiting or nausea
  • Constipation
  • Pallor (pale skin) from anemia
  • Metallic taste in mouth
  • Muscle and joint weakness or pain
  • Seizures

As you can see, all these symptoms can look like something else is going on. Testing is for lead is the only way to know for sure.

Sources: Robert Preidt,

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