DEAR DOCTOR K: What are the risks of lead poisoning? How can we protect our daughter from it?
DEAR READER: Lead is poison. Although major strides have been made in the past 50 years, lead poisoning is, unfortunately, still a problem. All of us are exposed to lead, but children are most vulnerable to it.
We used to have lead in gasoline, and so lead was in the air, particularly in cities. We used to allow lead in paint, and there was a lot of it in paint 60 years ago. The lead was eliminated completely from paint in the mid-1970s.
Unfortunately, older homes that were painted with lead-containing paint still pose a risk. If the paint peels, lead gets into house dust. Some young kids like to lick paint chips; if it’s old paint, lead gets into their body. If outdoor paint peels, the ground around the base of the house where kids play is contaminated.
Elevated lead levels in the body can cause developmental delays, behavioral problems, fatigue, headaches, abdominal pain, anemia, seizures and even coma. The first signs of lead poisoning may not appear until school age.
The cognitive and behavioral changes caused by lead are not reversible. That’s why early detection is so important: It can prevent these later problems. All children should be screened for lead poisoning with a simple blood test, starting at 6 months of age.
Once the source of lead exposure is removed, a child’s body eventually will get rid of the lead. The best way to prevent lead poisoning is to remove all sources of lead. To check if your home has lead paint, purchase a lead test kit, or have a certified inspector test your home.
If your home does contain lead-based paint, hire a certified contractor to remove it. The local public health department can help you to find qualified contractors. Don’t try removing the paint yourself: Unless the job is done absolutely correctly, paint removal can worsen the problem. Until then, carefully and frequently clean your home to reduce lead exposure.