Lead poisoning: What you need to know

Image by Steve Johnson of,  www.theminimalistphotographer.com

Image by Steve Johnson of, www.theminimalistphotographer.com

This week my news feed is flooded with articles about Flint, Michigan.  Recent media exposure of the town’s lead crisis has brought to light several disturbing stories of lead poisoned children and families desperately searching for answers and solutions.  It is frightening to think that town officials of Flint may have knowingly put local children at risk by allowing distribution of lead contaminated water.

Certainly the story of Flint is the exception and most of us have safe water sources, right?  How can we know for sure?

When I was pregnant the first time around my husband and I lived in a two family home, built in the early 1900’s.  The home had gone through many owners and plenty of renovations; it was anyone’s guess how many layers of paint were on the walls.  When we first moved in I hadn’t considered the possibility of lead, but with a new baby on the way it surely entered my mind.

I presumed lead paint was used at one point or another, but could there be other sources of lead, too?

If your family has children, especially under the age of five, consider the following:

  1. Was your home built before 1978?  After 1978, lead was no longer used in paint production.  If your home was built or painted before 1978  (or if someone painted a newer home with old paint) there is likely a layer of leaded paint on the walls.  A common misconception is that your child needs to eat a contaminated paint chip to ingest lead.  Unfortunately, simply inhaling or ingesting lead contaminated dust is enough to raise a child’s blood lead level (BLL).  Little babies crawling around on the floor are at the highest risk for this type of exposure.
  2. Was your home built before 1988?  Prior to 1988 municipal water suppliers used lead soldered pipes to bring running water into homes.  The old pipes could be leaching lead, especially as they continue to age.
  3. Own any old or off-brand/ discount shop toys?  Gosh, we all do!  Some older toys and toys from discounted vendors could be contaminated with lead.
  4. Enjoy growing leafy greens in your garden?  The soil, especially around older homes and industrial sites, is often seeded with lead.  The lead in the soil may absorb into certain edibles as they grow.

Well, this feels overwhelming!  My guess is most of us fit into one or more of those categories.  What can we do?  Panic?  Nah.  There is plenty that families can do to make sure their kids are safe.

Action steps and my personal thoughts:

  1. Talk to your health care provider about checking your child’s blood lead level. Starting at six months of age all babies and little kids are screened for lead exposure during their well child visits; however, if you have a specific concern about your kiddo it’s best to make an appointment now – do not wait till the next routine screening.
  2. Consider lead abatement in an older home, especially if there is visibly chipping paint in the house.  Lead abatement means having a certified professional come to your home, scope out the lead risks, and provide solutions for fixing identified problems.  If you go this route ask around for local recommendations and seek someone with a lot of experience.  Sloppy lead abatement jobs can actually increase the amount of exposed lead in your home.  Renting?  In all states landlords are obligated to disclose lead risk in their rental properties and in some states landlords are mandated to provide lead abatement if they rent to tenants with young children.  Failure to disclose a rental property’s lead risk is a federal offense.
  3. Have your water tested.  The only sure way to know if you have lead in your water is to have it tested.
  4. Water tests positive for lead?
    1. Call your town to see if there are any lead pipes coming in off the street to your home.  This is information the town must disclose, and in some cases, the town may pay for the pipes to be replaced if a problem is found.
    2. If there are no lead pipes coming into the house from the street, than the source of lead is likely within the plumbing of your own home.  Either way, until the source of the lead is remediated, do not drink the water unless you follow the following steps from the Centers for Disease Control.
  5. Avoid letting little ones who are still teething or at an age where everything-goes-into-the-mouth play with old or off-brand (unregulated) toys.
  6. If you enjoy growing your own food, have your soil tested.  Although lead levels in plants are often low, why take the risk?  There are many institutions able to test the lead levels in soil.  Personally, I’ve had a great experience working with the soil lab at UMass Amherst.  There are detailed instructions online for collecting the dirt and sending it to the lab.
  7. What if you find high levels of lead in your soil but still want to grow food?  Stay away from leafy greens and root vegetables like carrots.  Those tend to absorb the highest levels of lead.  Fruits and the fruiting bits of vegetables are safest.  Also, wash your produce extremely well to make sure all dirt is removed.  More detailed instructions on home gardening and lead can be found in this publication by the University of California.
  8. Any merit to those home lead testing kits?  Unfortunately they produce many false negative results.  This means that they don’t always recognize when there is lead in a product which makes the kits unreliable.

More questions?  Refer to the Centers for Disease Control or address specific questions to your health care provider.

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Lead poisoning: What you need to know by Sarah Kiser, CPNP-PC is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

About sarahkiser

Pediatric nurse practitioner, writer, mother of two.

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