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The Informed Parent

Dangers of Lead Poisoning

by Peter W. Welty, M.D., F.A.A.P.
Published on Oct. 29, 2001

A few weeks ago I was alerted to the fact that one of the elementary schools had been closed down, shortly after the fall semester had begun. The children were being dispersed to various other schools in the interim.

The reason for this disruption had to do with the fact that they had been doing some school construction work over the summer, and high levels of lead were found in the soil. To further cloud the picture, this school is located on a relatively small island.

Anxious parents wanted to know what the effects of lead exposure might be. Should they be cautious, or worried?

It happens that lead exposure is one of the most common and preventable poisonings of childhood. The centers for Disease Control reported recently that 6% of children, ages 1-2 years, and 11% of African-American children, between 1-5 years, have evidence of toxic blood lead levels. Both adults and children can be affected by lead, but it is especially relevant to children. Their nervous systems are still developing and are quite sensitive to its effects.

Common sources of lead may be found right in your own home. They include lead paint and lead in water and the soil. Young toddlers may accidentally ingest paint chips, especially in old houses or buildings. They love to pick and peel—and then taste. Houses built before 1950 are at the greatest risk of having lead-based paint.

Exposure to lead has a wide range of effects on children’s development and behavior. Even when exposed to small amounts of lead, children may appear inattentive, hyperactive and irritable. Those exposed to higher levels may have problems with learning, reading, delayed growth or hearing loss. Very high levels of lead can cause permanent brain damage, and even death.

Parents should make sure that their homes are free of lead-based paint, and that the lead level of their drinking water is acceptably low. It must be pointed out that the school was correct in removing the children from their current school site.

Early identification and treatment of lead poisoning reduces the risk of permanent brain damage. Treatment begins with removing the child from the source of lead. There are medications that remove lead from the body.

If you suspect you have had any exposure to lead be sure to have the child’s lead level determined. You doctor can follow up any toxic levels.

For additional information about lead poisoning, contact your local department of health, or:

Alliance to End Childhood Lead Poisoning
600 Pennsylvania Avenue, SE,
Suite 100, Washington, DC.

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