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Community Design

Childhood Lead Poisoning

Lead and Your Health

The main source of childhood lead poisoning is from lead-based paint and lead-contaminated dust in older homes. Twenty-four million housing units in the United States have peeling or chipping lead-based paint and high levels of lead-contaminated house dust. Young children live in more than 4 million of these homes.

People may be exposed to lead by breathing or swallowing lead or lead dust. Once it enters the body, lead can become a health hazard.

Lead from paints, ceramic products, caulking, and pipe solder has been dramatically reduced in the United States due to health concerns. In 1978, lead-based paints were banned from use in homes. Lead has also been removed from gasoline. However, lead can still be found in the environment. People, especially children, are still being exposed.

The health effects associated with lead are the same whether it enters the body through breathing or swallowing. Lead can affect almost every organ and system in the body. The main target for lead toxicity is the nervous system.

Lead poisoning can cause learning disabilities, behavioral problems, and, at very high levels, seizures, coma, and even death. Because lead poisoning often occurs with no obvious symptoms, it frequently goes unrecognized.

CDC considers a blood lead level (BLL) of 10 micrograms of lead per deciliter of blood (µg/dL) or greater to be elevated and to require individualized case management. However, recent studies suggest that adverse health effects exist in children at blood lead levels less than 10 µg/dL. No safe level of lead exposure has been identified.

Children are more vulnerable to lead poisoning than adults. The first 6 years, particularly the first 3 years, of life is the time when the brain grows the fastest and when the critical connections in the brain and nervous system that control thought, learning, hearing, movement, behavior, and emotions are formed. The normal behavior of children at this age -crawling, exploring, teething, putting objects in their mouth-puts them into contact with any lead that is present in their environment.

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Exposure and Risk

In the United States, the major source of lead exposure among children is lead-based paint and lead-contaminated dust found in older buildings. Lead-based paints were banned for use in housing in 1978. Houses and other buildings built before 1978, especially those built before 1950, may contain lead-based paint. If you live in or regularly visit homes built before 1978, you may be at risk for lead poisoning. This includes grandparents' or other family members' homes and in-home daycares.

Deteriorating paint (chipping, flaking, and peeling) and paint disturbed during home remodeling contribute to lead dust, contaminate bare soil around the home, and makes paint chips and dust-containing lead accessible to children. Children can be exposed to lead by eating lead-based paint chips, chewing on objects painted with lead-based paint, or swallowing house dust or soil that contains lead.

Lead from sources other than housing may also present a hazard. Other sources of lead poisoning are related to:

  • hobbies that include the use of lead (making stained-glass windows, hunting, fishing, target shooting);
  • work that includes the use of lead (recycling or making automobile batteries, painting, radiator repair) ;
  • drinking water (lead pipes, solder, brass fixtures, and valves can all leach lead); and
  • folk medicines and remedies (azarcon and greta, which are used for upset stomach or indigestion; pay-loo-ah, which is used for rash or fever).

Find out more about lead sources.

Children under the age of 6 years are at risk for lead poisoning because they tend to put their hands or other objects into their mouths. Any child who lives in or frequently visits houses and buildings built before 1978, especially houses and buildings with deteriorating or disturbed paint, is at risk for lead poisoning. Children from all social and economic levels can be affected by lead poisoning, but children whose families are low income and who are of minority race and ethnicity, especially non-Hispanic black children, are at most risk. For example, 3% of black children, compared to 1.3% of white children, have elevated blood lead levels. These children are more likely to live in substandard housing, which increases the risk of lead poisoning.

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To Protect Yourself and Your Family:

  • Ask a doctor to test your child if you are concerned about him or her being exposed to lead.
  • Talk to your state or local health department about testing paint and dust from your home for lead if you live in a house or apartment built before 1978, especially if young children live with you or visit you.
  • Damp-mop floors, damp-wipe surfaces, and frequently wash your child's hands, pacifiers, and toys to reduce exposure to lead.
  • Use only cold water from the tap for drinking, cooking, and for making baby formula. Hot water is more likely than cold water to contain higher levels of lead, and most of the lead in household water usually comes from plumbing in the house, not from the local water supply.
  • Avoid using home remedies (such as azarcon, greta, and pay-loo-ah) and cosmetics (such as kohl and alkohl) that contain lead.
  • Take basic steps to decrease your exposure to lead if you remodel buildings built before 1978 or if your work or hobbies involve working with lead-based products. For example, shower and change clothes after finishing the task.

Read more about preventing childhood lead poisoning.

A blood test is available to measure the amount of lead in your blood and to estimate the amount of your recent exposure to lead. Blood tests are commonly used to screen children for lead poisoning and can be easily conducted in your physician's office.

The most important treatment for lead poisoning is to prevent or reduce lead exposure. Properly removing the lead from a person's environment helps to ensure that their blood lead levels will decline. The longer a person is exposed to lead, the greater the likelihood that developmental problems or illness will occur. At very high blood lead levels, physicians may prescribe medications to lower blood lead levels in a treatment known as chelation therapy.

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