Lead poisoning occurs when a person swallows or breathes lead, which can damage many parts of the body, especially in young children.
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The year Josh turned 12, his parents bought a bigger house so that they would have a bedroom for his little brother, Timmy, who had just started to crawl. Everyone in the family was excited about the move to the house, which was in an older neighborhood with giant trees in the yards.
Josh spent many Saturday afternoons helping his dad fix up the 50-year-old house. Josh's dad knew that chips of paint from homes this age often contain lead, which could be poisonous to Timmy if he put them in his mouth. One of his first projects, then, was to scrape off the old paint and replace it with new, lead-free paint.
A few months later, Timmy's doctor tested his blood during a routine checkup and found a high level of lead. His parents had not known that Timmy could get lead poisoning from lead dust as well as paint chips. Luckily, the problem was caught and treated early.
What Is Lead Poisoning?
Lead is a metal that has been mined for thousands of years. In the past, it was used to make many everyday items found in or near homes, such as paint, gasoline, water pipes, and food cans. When a person swallows or breathes lead, however, it can be highly poisonous. It is especially dangerous to children ages 6 years and younger. This is partly because the bodies of such young children are changing rapidly and partly because children in this age group tend to put things in their mouths.
Lead is poisonous because it interferes with some of the body's basic activities. To some extent, the body cannot tell the difference between lead and calcium, a mineral that helps build strong bones. Like calcium, lead stays in the bloodstream for a few weeks. Then it is deposited into the bones, where it can stay for a lifetime. Even small amounts of lead can permanently harm children over time, leading to learning disabilities, behavior problems, decreased intelligence, and other damage. Large amounts of lead can cause seizures, unconsciousness, or even death.
What Causes Lead Poisoning?
There are many familiar items that are in our everyday environment that can cause lead poisoning.
Manufacturers used to put lead in paint to make it last longer and cling better to surfaces. Since 1978, the sale of lead-based paint for use in homes has been banned in the United States. It also has become illegal to paint children's toys and household furniture with lead-based paint. However, lead-based paint is still found in more than four out of five homes built before the time of the ban. Old paint that is peeling, chipped, or chalky is a hazard. Because lead has a sweet taste, children may eat chips of lead paint. Even lead-based paint in good condition can pose a risk if it is on surfaces that children chew or that get a lot of wear and tear. Lead-based paint can also be found on old children's toys and household furniture.
The most common way to get lead poisoning is through contact with lead in the form of dust. Lead can get into dust when old paint is scraped or sanded, or when painted surfaces bump or rub together. This dust can then settle on objects that people touch or children put into their mouths.
Oil companies used to add lead to gasoline to improve performance. This let lead particles escape into the air through car exhaust systems. In 1978, the amount of lead allowed in gasoline in the United States was cut, and cars today use lead-free gasoline. However, the soil around roads may still contain leftover lead from the old gasoline. Lead also can get into soil when the outside paint on old buildings flakes or peels.
Lead was once widely used in household plumbing. This lead can get into water that flows through the pipes. In 1986 and 1988, the use of lead in public water systems and plumbing was limited in the United States. However, the lead in old faucets, pipes, and solder used to connect pipes is still a problem. The amount of lead in water depends on the water's temperature (warm or hot water can contain more lead), the minerals and acid it contains, how long the water sits in the pipes, and the condition of the pipes.
Lead solder was once used to seal food cans. This lead could mix with the food inside the can. In 1995, the United States banned this use of lead solder, but it still may be found in some imported cans.
Some other sources of lead are:
- Lead-glazed pottery or leaded crystal can leach lead into foods and drinks.
- Lead smelters and other industries can release lead into the air.
- Jobs that involve working with lead can get lead dust on the clothes, skin, and hair.
- Hobbies such as making pottery and refinishing furniture use lead.
- Folk medicines and homemade cosmetics sometimes contain lead.
Who Is at High Risk?
Anyone of any age can be poisoned by lead. However, the risk is greatest to young children. In the United States, about 900,000 children ages 1 to 5 years have a dangerously high level of lead in their blood. These are some situations linked to increased risk in young children:
- Living in or regularly visiting a home built before 1950.
- Living in or regularly visiting a home built before 1978 that has chipped or peeling paint or that has been remodeled recently.
- Living with an adult whose job or hobby involves contact with lead.
- Having a brother, sister, or playmate who has had lead poisoning.
What Are the Symptoms?
Lead poisoning is not easy to detect. Sometimes no symptoms occur, and at other times the symptoms look like those of other illnesses. Some of the possible early signs of lead poisoning in children are constant tiredness or overactivity, irritability, loss of appetite, weight loss, decreased attention span, trouble sleeping, and constipation.
High levels of lead can cause seizures, unconsciousness, or even death in children. However, most cases of lead poisoning involve much lower levels of lead. Over time, though, even low levels of lead may cause permanent damage. At low levels, lead can cause problems like learning disabilities, behavior problems, decreased intelligence, speech problems, decreased attention span, brain or nerve damage, poor coordination, kidney damage, decreased growth, and hearing loss.
Contact with lead is especially dangerous for children. However, it can be harmful for teenagers and adults as well. If a pregnant woman comes into contact with lead, it can raise her risk of illness during pregnancy. It can also cause problems, including brain damage or death, in her unborn baby. At high levels, lead in adults can cause problems such as infertility, high blood pressure, digestion problems, nerve disorders, memory problems, decreased attention span, and muscle and joint pain.
How Is Lead Poisoning Diagnosed?
Often lead poisoning has few symptoms. The only way to know whether a person has lead poisoning is to get a blood test that measures the amount of lead in the blood. Children who are not at high risk are usually tested at ages 1 and 2 years. Children who are at high risk are usually tested every 6 months between the ages of 6 months and 2 years, then once a year until age 6. A blood test can also be done at any time on anyone who has symptoms or may have had exposure to lead.
How Is Lead Poisoning Treated?
The first step in treatment is to avoid more contact with lead. This means finding and removing any sources of lead in the home. The next step is to make any needed changes in diet. Children should eat at least three meals a day, because they absorb less lead when they have food in their systems. Children also should eat plenty of foods high in iron and calcium, such as milk, cheese, fish, peanut butter, and raisins. When they do not get enough iron and calcium, their bodies mistake lead for these minerals and more lead is absorbed and deposited in their tissues.
If blood levels of lead are high enough, the doctor may prescribe a drug that chelates (KEE-lates), or binds to, lead in the body. Once lead is bound up in this way, the body can remove it through urine or bowel movements. Depending on the drug used, it may be given in a vein, by shot, or by mouth.
Lead's Role in History
Lead lasts a long time and has a low melting temperature. In ancient Rome, wealthy families had indoor plumbing with lead pipes. (The chemical symbol for lead is Pb, from the Latin word plumbum for a lead weight. This also is the root for the word "plumber.") The Romans also lined their outside pipes and water tanks with lead, and they made lead plates and eating utensils. Roman wine makers even sweetened sour wine by adding a syrup containing powdered lead. Modern historians have suggested that lead poisoning may explain the strange behavior of several Roman emperors, including Caligula (A.D. 12-41), who wasted a fortune on public entertainment, banished and murdered relatives, made his favorite horse a public official, and declared himself a god. The decline and fall of the Roman Empire may have been due, at least in part, to lead.
Getting the Lead Out
These tips can help prevent lead poisoning:
- Wash the hands often, especially after spending time outside and before eating.
- Wash the floors, windowsills, and other surfaces in the home weekly.
- Use a sponge or mop with a solution of water and all-purpose cleaner to dean up dust.
- Rinse the sponge or mop thoroughly after cleaning dirty or dusty areas.
- Keep younger children from chewing on painted surfaces, such as windowsills or cribs.
- Do not let younger children put toys and other objects with painted surfaces in their mouths.
- Have younger children play in grassy areas instead of soil, which may have lead in it.
- Wash a younger child's bottles, pacifiers, toys, and stuffed animals often.
- Use cold tap water for drinking or cooking, because lead is more likely to leach into hot water taken from the tap.
- Eat a well-balanced diet that is low in fat and high in iron and calcium.
Kessel, Irene, and John T. O'Connor. Getting the Lead Out: The Complete Resource on How to Prevent and Cope with Lead Poisoning. New York: Plenum Publishing, 1997.
Environmental Protection Agency, Office of Pollution Prevention and
Toxics. "Lead in Your Home: A Parent's Reference
Guide." To order, contact the National Lead Information Center,
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Lead Poisoning Prevention
4770 Buford Highway, Atlanta, GA 30341, (888) 232-6789. A federal
agency that aims to prevent childhood lead poisoning.
National Lead Information Center, 8601 Georgia Avenue, Suite 503, Silver
Spring, MD 20910, (800) 424-LEAD. A federal clearinghouse for lead