Young children are most vulnerable to the health effects of lead, a toxic metal that has been used in a variety of household and commercial products. Despite continued declines in the numbers of children affected, lead poisoning remains one of the most common preventable pediatric injuries.
How are young children exposed to lead?
Lead-based paint remains the major source of exposure. Although lead-based paint was banned in 1978, houses built before then likely contain some lead-based paint. If the paint deteriorates, it can chip, or peel or form dust, creating a lead-based paint hazard. Lead-based paint hazards are most likely to be found on windows and doors, due to the wear-and-tear created by opening and closing them. Young children, because of their tendency to put their hands or objects into their mouth, are most vulnerable to exposure to lead-contaminated dust. Young children may also be exposed by ingesting bits of chipping or peeling paint.
Why is it important to protect young children from lead exposure?
Protecting children from exposure to lead is important for lifelong good health. Even low levels of lead in a child’s blood have been shown to decrease a child’s IQ, ability to pay attention, and academic achievement. The harmful effects of lead exposure cannot be corrected.
What are some other sources of lead?
There are a number of other sources of lead that are means of exposure for children. Lead can be found in soil and in drinking water (usually as a result of the lead-based plumbing). Lead has also been found in some toys, jewelry, candy and cosmetics that were imported from other counties, in some traditional home remedies and in containers and cookware.
What can be done to prevent a young child from being exposed to lead?
If you live in a home that was built before 1978, consider having it inspected for lead hazards. It is also important to make sure the floors and other surfaces that may contain lead-contaminated dust are kept clean, and toys and other objects that a young child may put into their mouth are washed regularly. If you are renovating, ensure you are using lead-safe work practices. Click here for instructions on lead-safe work practices.
Because soil may contain harmful levels of lead, it is important to keep children from playing in bare soil. Instead, plant grass to cover bare soil, or consider getting a sandbox for your child to play in. Drinking water may also be a source, so it is suggested only cold water be used from the tap (hot tap water is more likely to contain higher levels of lead). Lastly, avoid other items that may contain lead. Click here for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) updated list of such items.
What should I do to determine if my child has been exposed to harmful levels of lead?
The only way to determine if a child has been exposed to lead is to have the child’s blood tested. Because even small amounts of lead in a child can be harmful, and because symptoms may not be obvious, all young children should get their blood tested. The Chicago Department of Health (CDPH) recommends that children have a series of four blood tests between the ages of 6 months and 3 years (the age range where children are most likely to be exposed to harmful levels of lead); children may also need to be tested between the ages of 4 and 6. Such tests are available through your child’s health care provider.
What happens if my child is found to have elevated levels of lead?
If you child resides in Chicago, a report will be forwarded to the CDPH. An inspector will inspect the child’s residence (or other places the child frequents) to determine if there are lead hazards present. If so, the property owner will be required to fix that hazard. Additionally, a nurse will conduct a home visit and conduct health and nutritional assessments on the child as well as educate the parent about lead and ways to reduce lead exposure.
Where can I find out additional information on lead?
Additional information on lead can be found in the Environmental Health section of the CDPH web site.
As always, please call the Illinois Poison Center at 1-800-222-1222 if you think you or someone you know may be a victim of lead poisoning.
-CDPH Environmental Health Medical Director Cort Lohff, M.D.