Lead is a highly toxic metal. Children under the age of six years are particularly vulnerable to the effects of lead poisoning because it can affect the formation and connection of neurons while the nervous system is growing and developing. No level of lead in the blood has been found to be safe in children and even small amounts can affect children’s ability to learn, concentrate and achieve academically.
The effects of lead exposure cannot be reversed and it is therefore important to prevent lead exposure in children before it causes any damage. This involves identifying any lead hazards in the child’s environment so they can be controlled or removed.
Sources of Lead Exposure
In the US, lead-based paint and dust from peeling paint are the main lead hazards for children. Lead is also found in certain imported products such as some traditional medicines, cosmetics, spices, toys and ceramics. Certain vocations such as roofing, battery manufacture, pottery production, smelting, bronzing, pipe cutting, soldering and roofing can expose adults and their families to lead.
The use of paints containing lead when houses are being built was banned in 1978, but all houses built before then probably contain at least some lead-based paint, which causes a problem once it starts to deteriorate. Children who live in these older houses are therefore at the greatest risk of lead exposure.
Two house painters in hazmat suits removing lead paint from an old house. Image Copyright: Jamie Hooper / Shutterstock
Residential Preventive Measures
Some of the measures people can take in the house to protect their families from lead poisoning are described below.
- Find out which year their house was built in. This also applies to any dwelling where the child spends a lot of time. If the house was built before 1978, it should be assumed that lead-based paint was used, unless testing shows otherwise. Local health departments can test the paint and dust in houses.
- Children should not have access to any surfaces that may have peeling lead-based paint.
- Until a house containing lead-based paint has undergone an environmental clean-up, all sources of lead should be cleaned and isolated. Children should be kept away from chipping or peeling wall paint.
- Children’s hands and toys should be regularly washed because they can become contaminated by household dust, as well as by soil outside the house, on which house dust may have settled.
- Wipe floors, window sills and other surfaces every two to three weeks to prevent accumulation of lead-contaminated dust.
- Remove shoes before entering the house to prevent lead-contaminated soil from being tracked in.
- Grass should be planted in areas of bare soil or mulch or wood chips used to cover the areas.
If people are renovating a house with lead-based paint, they should ensure the following:
- Children and pregnant women should avoid being in any house undergoing renovation that was built before 1978.
- Do not sand lead painted surfaces or use an open flame torch, as those methods produce a large amount of small lead particles that can be inhaled.
- Old paint should be covered with new paint, so long as it is not peeling or chipped. Alternatively, paneling or encapsulation can be used, which is similar to a thick coat of paint.
- Protective clothing should be worn and then changed before leaving the site.
- Do not eat or drink in any area contaminated with lead dust.
Non-Residential Preventive Measures
To reduce exposure from other, non-residential sources of lead, the following measures can be taken:
- Traditional medicines or cosmetics that may contain lead should be avoided.
- Containers, tableware or cookware should be shown to be lead free.
- Any recalled toys should be removed.
- If plumbing contains lead piping or fittings, the cold tap should be run for at least a minute before tap water is used. Hot tap water must not be used for cooking or preparing baby formula as it is likely to contain higher levels of lead
- Shower and change after working around lead-containing items like stained glass or ammunition.
- Eat a healthy, nutritious diet to minimize absorption of lead.
Reviewed by Catherine Shaffer, M.Sc.