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Approximately 250,000 U.S. children aged 1-5 years have blood lead levels greater than 10 micrograms of lead per deciliter of blood, the level at which CDC recommends public health actions be initiated. According to 2011 Missouri blood lead testing data, 712 children under the age of six, were identified with elevated blood lead levels in the state. Lead poisoning is a both preventable and treatable condition.
How are children exposed to lead?
Lead-based paint and lead contaminated dust are the main sources of exposure for lead in U.S. children. Lead-based paints were banned for use in housing in 1978. All houses built before 1978 are likely to contain some lead-based paint. However, it is the deterioration of this paint that causes a problem. Approximately 24 million housing units have deteriorated leaded paint and elevated levels of lead-contaminated house dust. More than 4 million of these dwellings are homes to one or more young children.
Who is at risk?
All children under the age of 6 years old are at risk because they are growing so rapidly and because they tend to put their hands or other objects, which may be contaminated with lead dust, into their mouths. However, children living at or below the poverty line who live in older housing are at greatest risk. Additionally, children of some racial and ethnic groups and those living in older housing are disproportionately affected by lead.
Lead poisoning is entirely preventable. The key is stopping children from coming into contact with lead and treating children who have been poisoned by lead.
- It is important to determine the construction year of the house or the dwelling where your child may spend a large amount of time (e.g., grandparents or daycare). In housing built before 1978, assume that the paint has lead unless tests show otherwise.
- Talk to your state or local health department about testing paint and dust from your home for lead.
- Make sure your child does not have access to peeling paint or chewable surfaces painted with lead-based paint.
- Pregnant women and children should not be present in housing built before 1978 that is undergoing renovation. They should not participate in activities that disturb old paint or in cleaning up paint debris after work is completed.
- Create barriers between living/play areas and lead sources. Until environmental clean-up is completed, parents should clean and isolate all sources of lead. They should close and lock doors to keep children away from chipping or peeling paint on walls. You can also apply temporary barriers such as contact paper or duct tape, to cover holes in walls or to block children’s access to other sources of lead.
- Regularly wash children’s hands and toys. Hands and toys can become contaminated from household dust or exterior soil. Both are known lead sources.
- Regularly wet-mop floors and wet-wipe window components. Because household dust is a major source of lead, parents should wet-mop floors and wet-wipe horizontal surfaces every 2-3 weeks. Windowsills and wells can contain high levels of leaded dust. They should be kept clean. If feasible, windows should be shut to prevent abrasion of painted surfaces or opened from the top sash.
- Prevent children from playing in bare soil; if possible, provide them with sandboxes. Parents should plant grass on areas of bare soil or cover the soil with grass seed, mulch, or wood chips, if possible. Until the bare soil is covered, parents should move play areas away from bare soil and away from the sides of the house. If using a sandbox, parents should also cover the box when not in use to prevent cats from using it as a litter box. That will help protect children from exposure to animal waste.
Treatment for lead poisoning varies depending on how much lead is in the blood. Small amounts often can be treated rather easily; the most important part of therapy is reduction of lead exposure. Gradually, as the body naturally eliminates the lead, the level of lead in the blood will fall.
Kids with severe cases and extremely high lead levels in their blood will be hospitalized to receive a medication called a chelating agent, which chemically binds with lead, allowing the body to excrete it naturally.
All siblings of a child found to have lead poisoning also should be tested. Doctors will report cases of lead poisoning to the public health department.
Protecting Your Family
You can protect your kids from lead poisoning by ensuring that your home is lead-free — ask your local health department about having your home evaluated for lead sources. And have your kids tested for lead exposure, particularly if when they're between 6 months and 3 years old. Kids this age spend a lot of time on the floor and trying to put things in their mouths.
These tips can help you reduce the risk of lead exposure:
- Be wary of old plumbing. Old plumbing might be lined with lead. If you have an old plumbing system (in homes built before 1970), which used copper pipes and lead solder, you may want to get your water tested. You can call your local health department or water department to find a laboratory that will test your water for lead content. You also can take precautions to limit your exposure. If the water from the cold faucet has not been run for several hours, let cold water run for 30 seconds before drinking it. And because hot water absorbs more lead than cold water, don't use hot tap water for meals.
- Keep your home and your family clean. Wash your kids' hands and toys frequently, and keep dusty surfaces clean with a wet cloth. If you suspect that you might have lead-based paint on your walls, use a wet cloth to wipe windowsills and walls. Watch out for water damage that can make paint peel. Don't sand or heat lead-based paint because doing so increases the risk that lead will be inhaled. If the paint doesn't have many chips, a new layer of paint, paneling, or drywall will probably reduce the risk. It's best to consult a professional, especially because other precautions might be needed to contain the lead in the paint.
- Ensure that iron and calcium are in your diets. If kids are exposed to lead, good nutrition can reduce the amount that's absorbed by their bodies. Eating regular meals is helpful because lead is absorbed more during periods of fasting.
Other Department of Health and Senior Services websites of interest may include:
Adult Blood Lead Epidemiology and Surveillance (ABLES)