Harvard Health Letter
The lead poisoning of thousands of children in Flint, Michigan is tragic — and should never have happened. If we are going to make sure that nothing like it happens again, all of us, especially parents, need to learn about lead poisoning.
Lead is a chemical that used to be commonly found in paint, gasoline and factory emissions. It also was used to make pipes, as well as the solder that holds them together. But once the toxicity of lead was fully understood, there were laws and regulations put in place to limit its use, and to limit the exposure of children and pregnant women to lead. The problem is there’s still a whole lot of lead out there, especially in older, poorer communities.
The reason we really don’t want children and pregnant women to be exposed to lead is that it can affect the developing brain. Exposure to lead can lead to a lower IQ, as well as learning and behavior problems that can last a lifetime. Slowly and silently, it can change a child’s life forever.
That’s what’s so hard about lead: It can be invisible, and do its damage without being noticed. If children eat something with a lot of lead — like a bunch of lead paint chips — and therefore have a high level of lead in their blood, they may have noticeable symptoms such as headache, constipation, vomiting or confusion. But those kinds of exposures are (thankfully) uncommon.
The more common kinds of exposure are from dust in houses with lead paint, from water contaminated with lead (by passing through old pipes, which is what happened in Flint), or from toys, jewelry, tableware or home remedies that may be contaminated with lead. These kinds of exposures don’t usually cause symptoms before they cause damage.
Here’s what parents and caregivers of children need to know and do:
–If your home was built before 1978, make sure you know if it has any lead paint. If you aren’t sure, get it inspected.
–If you are going to have lead removed, or do renovations in an older house that may have lead paint under layers of other paint or wallpaper, make sure that the work is done by people who are certified in lead removal. For more information about this, check out the EPA’s web page.
–Ask questions about the possibility of lead in your tap water. Lead can leach into the water from old pipes in your house, as well as pipes leading to your house. In Flint, the problem was that the city’s supply was changed to a river that had very corrosive water, and this water made lead leach into the water. (Sadly, even though they’ve changed the water supply, the damage done to the pipes is causing lead to still get into the water.) If you aren’t able to get good answers, or if you just aren’t sure, get your water tested. If you have well water, it should be tested when the well is first built and again if a pregnant woman or child younger than 18 moves in.
–Be mindful of possible exposure from household objects, usually ones made in other countries. The Consumer Products Safety Commission has information about recalls, as well as about products that may contain lead.
–Get your child tested for lead. Every child should be tested at least at ages 1 and 2, and again at 3 and 4 in areas with older housing stock. However, your doctor can do a simple blood test (preferably not a finger stick) to check at any time if there is a concern about a possible exposure. While no level of lead is normal or fine, a level of 5 or higher is considered dangerous.
The American Academy of Pediatrics has lots of great resources about lead and its effects, as does the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It’s so important that all of us learn about this terrible, silent poison — and keep our children safe from it.
(Claire McCarthy, M.D. is a faculty editor of Harvard Health Publications.)
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Erin O’Donnell is a freelance health and science writer, parent, and graduate of Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism. Walks by Lake Michigan make her happy.