Lead poisoning is preventable, yet we still find children in Wisconsin that suffer from lead poisoning. How is it that a completely healthy child can become affected by lead? With experience as a lead outreach worker, it is easy for me to paint the scene. Imagine a 3-year old, Katrina, learning how to crawl around and explore her house, an older home built in 1901. In an effort to keep her daughter healthy and hydrated, Katrina’s mom gets her a glass of tap water, not knowing the dangers associated with seemingly ordinary tap water. Katrina plucks toys from the ground and then presses them into her mouth to taste. The kitchen window is opened to let in cool air to circulate after Katrina’s mom is done cooking, but the friction of opening the window dispels bits of dust that Katrina inhales, and which later will settle on her toys. Katrina takes a bowl of cheerios and peers out the window to look outside, watching the red-tinted leaves falling off the oak trees. As the leaves fall, so do pieces of white peeling paint, from the windowpane, into her bowl of cheerios. Later, Katrina goes outside and digs soil with her toy shovel and then with her small hands. Fall vegetables are growing in her mother’s garden and they get covered in invisible bits of lead paint dust flaking off the old garage. Katrina is due for a doctor’s visit where her mom learns that Katrina has an elevated blood lead level. Anything above 5ug/dL, the doctor says, is considered lead poisoning by Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) standards. Katrina’s mom needs to know the facts, and that is the goal of lead poisoning prevention week: preventing more children from becoming lead poisoned and taking steps to reduce further exposure to lead.
There is no use for lead in the human body and it is in fact a poisonous metal that can cause great harm. Children under 6 years of age are at the highest risk for lead poisoning due to their hand to mouth activity and developing brain. The number one reason for lead poisoning in children is due to exposure to lead dust from lead-based paint. If a home was built before 1978, there’s a high chance it contains lead based paint under layers of new paint. Lead can chip from wear and tear, especially in windows and window sills, doors and door frames, stairs, railings, banisters, and porches. Problematically for children, lead paint is also sweet to the taste. Lead-based paint or dust can also fall into soil, contaminating it and covering surfaces of produce. You may also find lead in some some water service lines and household plumbing materials. Lead can leach from these service lines and enter the water supply. Another source of lead is from leaded gasoline, used in the United States until 1986. Gas emissions with lead have settled and contaminated urban soil at different concentrations.
Lead is also a neurotoxin that can lead to slowed brain activity, contributing to attention disorders and behavioral problems. In addition to these worrisome neurotoxic side effects, lead can also accumulate in the bones, leading to decreased bone growth. Additionally, lead in bone can seep out and reenter the bloodstream. Lead is also more easily absorbed if the child’s stomach is empty or if they’re not receiving adequate nutrition. Foods high in vitamin C, calcium, and iron can help prevent lead absorption, whereas foods high in fat make it easier for lead to remain in the body.
Childhood lead poisoning leads to long-lasting effects in adulthood, too. Lead poisoning can lead to adult reproductive disorders in both men and women, such as reduced libido and testicular dysfunction in men. Women may develop hypertension during pregnancy and have an increased risk of a spontaneous abortion. Adults have a higher risk for kidney disease, high blood pressure, and cognitive deficits.
What can Katrina’s mom do to prevent further lead poisoning? What can you do?
- Know your Lead Rights. Before you buy or rent an older home, ask for the Lead Disclosure Form that tells you about the presence of lead in your home.
- If your child is under the age of six, get them tested for lead at your doctor’s office.
- Keep your children away from window sills and walls with peeling paint or dust.
- Feed your child a healthy diet to reduce risk of lead absorption.
- Do not use hot water from the faucet for cooking or drinking. Run your water before using it, or better yet, install an NSF certified water filter in your home.
- If home repairs are needed, work with lead-safe contractors.
- Practice good hygiene and consistent hand washing.
- Keep windows free of dust, clean your home frequently, and wash toys.
- Change clothes before coming home from work if your job exposes you to lead.
- Don’t let children play in bare soil, and wash fruits and vegetables from the garden.
- Use gardening gloves and gardening shoes when working with soil.
- Don’t cook with hand-made pottery, especially lead pottery made in Mexico.
Written for Milwaukee Area Science Advocates by Alejandra Hernandez, Lead Project Coordinator at Sixteenth Street Community Health Centers
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