Lead Poisoning in Children

Lead poisoning is a serious matter. It happens after repeated exposure to things that contain high levels of lead. This could be old paint, water, candy from another country, soil, and more.

If children are around items with a high level of lead, they won’t have lead poisoning symptoms right away. But when they do, symptoms include stomach pain, headaches, vomiting, confusion, muscle weakness, seizures, hair loss, and anemia (a low red blood cell count). Long-term exposure to lead also can damage your brain, kidneys, and bone marrow. Marrow is the soft tissue inside bones.

Even low levels of lead exposure can cause health problems. These include attention deficits, behavior problems, learning difficulties, and decreased IQ in young children. IQ stands for “intelligence quotient.” It measures a person’s intelligence.

Children under the age of 6 are most at risk for lead poisoning. There are many ways they can be exposed to lead. Lead can be found in food and candy from countries that don’t screen well for lead. But one of the main sources of lead is lead-based paint. Before 1978, paint contained lead. This paint was used on walls both inside and outside of homes as well as on windowsills, trim, and more. It was also used on items such as toys and jewelry.

Because it’s older, lead paint tends to peel or crack. When it does, it releases tiny bits of lead dust into the air. Lead dust also can be released when lead-based paint is sanded in preparation for a remodeling project. This dust then settles on everything around it. If it’s outside a home, the dust can settle on the dirt near the home’s foundation. Children usually become exposed to lead by putting objects in their mouth. They may pick up something that has lead dust on it. They may put a toy painted with lead paint in their mouth. Or they may find a paint chip and put that in their mouth. They may also be exposed if they touch something that has lead dust on it and then put their hands in their mouth.

Children can be exposed to lead in other ways, too. It can be found in food or juice stored in foreign-made cans or in improperly fired ceramic containers.

Children who live at or below the poverty line are more likely to be exposed to lead paint. This population may be more likely to live in older housing. Many older houses and apartment buildings have lead-based paint on their walls. Also, children of some racial and ethnic groups are more likely to be exposed.

Path to improved health

The good news is lead poisoning can be prevented. If you’re live in a home or apartment built before 1978, follow these tips.

  • Ask your doctor about testing your child for lead poisoning.
  • Keep your child away from peeling paint. Remove all peeling paint up to 5 feet above the floor. If possible, repaint all rooms that contain lead paint. But don’t scrape the old paint off. Instead, paint over it. This will seal in the old paint and prevent it from peeling.
  • When remodeling a room, seal it off with heavy plastic. This reduces the spread of lead dust.
  • Have everyone in the family wipe their feet and remove their shoes before walking inside the home. This lowers the risk of bringing lead dust into the home from outside.
  • Wash your child’s hands and face before meals.
  • Wash your child’s toys frequently.
  • Wet-mop floors and windowsills. This reduces the spread of dust contaminated with lead.
  • Keep children from playing in dirt. Lead dust may be in the dirt around the home.
  • Use cold tap water for drinking and cooking. Hot tap water produces more lead from aging pipes.

Here are some other tips not related to an older home.

  • Don’t cook with or eat from old pans and tableware. It’s likely these items contain lead.
  • Have your children change their clothes if you suspect they’ve been exposed to lead.
  • Avoid folk medicine. These foods and herbs may contain lead.
  • Talk with your doctor to learn other ways to reduce exposure to lead.

Things to consider

If your child has been exposed to lead, he or she may not show symptoms. But if you think your child has been around lead, call your child’s doctor right away. He or she may do the following:

  • Order a blood test. This will show the level of lead in your child’s blood. If the test shows lead poisoning, your doctor may prescribe medicine for your child. Also, he or she will repeat blood tests until your child’s levels have returned to a normal range.
  • If one or more of your children has high blood lead levels, your child’s doctor will call your local health department. That agency can help you. It can inspect your home for the source of the lead. It can also help you find a way to correct the problem.

Questions for your doctor

  • What if the age of my home is borderline? How do I know if it has lead-based paint?
  • How do I know if the walls of my home have been repainted with newer paint?
  • What physical symptoms of lead poisoning should I look for in my children?
  • How do I know if I was exposed and damaged by lead when I was a child?


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