danger lead paint sign

(© Kim Britten - stock.adobe.com)

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), more than half a million children in the United States have elevated blood lead levels (BLLs). Are you shocked? I was. Much earlier in my career, I took over the Lead Poisoning Prevention Program of the Smith County Public Health District based in Tyler, Texas. It was an awakening.

It’s common knowledge that lead in paint was banned in the United States as of 1978 and that lead in gasoline was phased out in the mid-1980s. So, that solved the problem of lead poisoning, right? Not even close. There are still a plethora of often-hidden lead sources in our environment.

Why should you care about high levels of lead?

Exposure to even low levels of lead can cause damage over time, especially in children. The greatest risk is to brain development, where irreversible damage can occur. Higher levels can damage the kidneys and nervous system in both children and adults. Very high lead levels may cause seizures, unconsciousness, and death.

What are the symptoms of lead poisoning?

Initially, lead poisoning can be hard to detect — even people who seem healthy can have high blood levels of lead. Signs and symptoms usually don’t appear until dangerous amounts have accumulated.

Lead poisoning symptoms in children

  • Delayed development
  • Difficulty learning
  • Irritability
  • Poor appetite
  • Weight loss
  • Sluggishness
  • Pain in the abdomen
  • Vomiting/Constipation
  • Loss of hearing
  • Seizures
  • Pica – eating things that aren’t food, such as paint chips, dirt, laundry starch

Lead poisoning symptoms in newborns or signs of exposure before birth

Lead poisoning symptoms in adults

  • High blood pressure
  • Pain in joints and muscles
  • Impaired memory or concentration
  • Headaches
  • Abdominal pain
  • Mood disorders
  • Low sperm count, abnormal sperm
  • Miscarriage, stillbirth, or premature birth in pregnant women
Leaded gasoline sign
Leaded gasoline was the primary fuel type produced and sold in America until 1975, as depicted by this sign on an old gas pump. (© David A Litman – stock.adobe.com)

10 surprising sources of lead exposure

Paint

Homes built before 1978 may contain lead paint. Lead paint was banned from residential use in 1978. There are often, however, layers of lead paint beneath lead-free paint. Natural disasters like floods and hurricanes can end up revealing these dangers. Layers of lead-based paint are exposed during the destruction of buildings constructed before 1978. Lead from old paint which has been buried in the soil is stirred up and exposed.

​Drinking water

Lead is rarely found in water before it enters your home, but the plumbing in your home could be contributing lead to the water you drink. Lead is most likely to be found in your water first thing in the morning after the water sits in the pipes all night, or any length of time where it sits more than six hours.

Home renovations

A DIY project in your home may disturb lead paint. Find a test kit at your local hardware store or hire a licensed professional to assess the exposure. DIY does not apply to landlords. Those who choose to do work themselves on their rental properties must, as a matter of law, comply with Federal EPA Renovate, Repair, and Paint laws.

​Baby food

News about heavy metals found in baby food can leave parents with a lot of questions. The American Academy of Pediatrics has current information about the risk of toxic metal exposure to children and how to help minimize it.

Soil

The only way to know if there is lead in your soil is to get it tested. Lead-contaminated soil continues to be a hazardous source of lead exposure for young children in the NH. Deposits from leaded gasoline, exterior lead-based paint, and industrial sources have contributed to increased levels of lead in the soil. This is especially common in urban areas and homes built before 1978.

Jobs, hobbies, and other activities

Some adults work in industries or have hobbies that expose them to lead. These adults may bring lead home with them and expose their families to lead without knowing. This dust can be tracked onto carpets, floors, furniture, and other surfaces that a child may touch.

Toys

Some toys, especially some imported toys, antique toys, and toy jewelry may contain lead. Make sure the child does not have access to toys, jewelry, or other items that may contain lead.

Cosmetics

Lead has been found in products typically used as cosmetics or in religious ceremonies. Children and adults have been exposed to high levels of lead by ingesting a product generically called “sindoor.” Though not intended to be food, it might be used by some as a food additive. Traditionally, Hindu, and some Sikh, married women wear the red sindoor powder in the parting of their hair to indicate marital status.

Spices, herbal remedies, and candy

Lead has been found in candies and some powders and tablets given for arthritis, infertility, upset stomach, menstrual cramps, colic, and other illnesses traditionally used by East Indian, Indian, Middle Eastern, West Asian, and Hispanic cultures.

Shooting ranges

Indoor firing ranges are popular among law enforcement and recreational shooters because they offer protection from inclement weather conditions and can be operated around the clock under controlled environmental conditions. However, many firing range facilities lack environmental and occupational controls to protect the health of shooters and range personnel from the effects of airborne lead, noise, and other potential exposures.

If you would like to have your child or any member of your household tested for lead, start a conversation with your doctor. Children should be tested at age 12 and 24 months as a part of well-child care. Children with risk factors for lead toxicity may need testing more often. You may need to ask your
provider for testing. Your local public health department will often do free testing on well water and soils.

About Dr. Faith Coleman

Dr. Coleman is a graduate of the University of New Mexico School of Medicine and holds a BA in journalism from UNM. She completed her family practice residency at Wm. Beaumont Hospital, Troy and Royal Oak, MI, consistently ranked among the United States Top 100 Hospitals by US News and World Report. Dr. Coleman writes on health, medicine, family, and parenting for online information services and educational materials for health care providers.

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1 Comment

  1. R O says:

    What does “NH” mean in “exposure for young children in the NH.” ?

    How long does lead from childhood exposure remain in our bodies? Is that a concern for us Baby-boomers, and our children who were likely to have been exposed to older houses well into the 90’s.