What is Lead?
Lead is a heavy metal. It was used in many materials and products before the risk to young children was known. Certain products such as paints used in older houses before 1978, lead solder used in plumbing, and leaded gasoline were used before their harmful health effects were recognized. Although laws now prevent lead from being used in many products, there can still be lead hazards in and around many homes. Lead can get into the air, water, food, soil, and even dust and then can be breathed or swallowed leading to serious health problems, especially for young children.
Lead is a toxin (poison) that can harm young children. Children 6 years old and under are most at risk because their bodies are still developing. A young child's exposure to lead can cause learning and behavioral problems and possibly damage their brains, kidneys, and other organs.
Lead enters the body when children breathe lead dust or lead fumes, or swallow something with lead in it. Young children often put things in their mouth creating a way for lead to enter the body. The main way most young children are exposed to harmful levels of lead is through contact with lead contaminated paint and dust. In nearly all cases, lead dust is either breathed in, or taken in as dust licked off surfaces or in swallowed paint chips that contain lead.
Less often, water is contaminated when it flows through lead pipes or brass fixtures, or food is contaminated by contact with lead-glazed ceramic dishes. Certain ethnic spices, foods and cosmetics also have lead. In certain jobs and hobbies, adults may work with leaded materials and can possibly expose their child to lead if proper cleaning is not done.
Sources of Lead
Paint: Lead was used in paint to add color, improve the ability of the paint to hide the surface it covers, and to make it last longer. In 1978 the federal government banned lead paint for use in homes. Homes built before 1978 probably contain lead-based paint. Painted toys and furniture made before 1978 may also contain lead-based paint. Lead-based paint becomes dangerous when it chips, turns into dust, or gets into the soil.
Dust: Lead dust is the most common way that people are exposed to lead. Inside the home, most lead dust comes from chipping and flaking paint or when paint is scraped, sanded, or disturbed during home remodeling. Chipping and peeling paint is found mostly on surfaces that rub or bump up against another surface. These surfaces include doors and windows. Young children usually get exposed to lead when they put something with lead dust on it into their mouths. Lead dust may not be visible to the naked eye.
Soil: Before 1978 companies used to add lead to gasoline. Lead particles escaped from car exhaust systems and went into the air. This lead fell to the ground and mixed with soil near roads. The lead is still there today. Homes near busy streets may have high levels of lead in the soil. Today, lead still comes from metal smelting, battery manufacturing, and other factories that use lead. This lead gets into the air and then mixes with the soil near homes, especially if the home is near one of these sources. Flaking lead-based paint on the outside of buildings can also mix with the soil close to buildings. Lead-based paint mixing with soil is a big problem during home remodeling if workers are not careful. Once the soil has lead in it, wind can stir up lead dust, and blow it into homes and yards. Cities are at highest risk for unsafe levels of lead in soils.
Drinking Water: Lead is unusual among drinking water contaminants in that it seldom occurs naturally in water supplies like rivers and lakes. Lead enters drinking water primarily as a result of the corrosion, or wearing away, of materials containing lead in the water distribution system and household or building plumbing. These materials include lead-based solder used to join copper pipe, brass and chrome plated brass faucets, and in some cases, pipes made of lead that connect houses and buildings to water mains. In 1986, Congress banned the use of lead solder containing greater than 0.2% lead, and restricted the lead content of faucets, pipes and other plumbing materials to 8.0%. Older construction may still have plumbing that has the potential to contribute lead to drinking water.
Imported candies or foods, especially from Mexico, containing chili or tamarind: Lead can be found in candy, wrappers, pottery containers, and in certain ethnic foods, such as chapulines (dried grasshoppers).
The workplace and hobbies: People exposed to lead at work may bring lead home on their clothes, shoes, hair, or skin. Some jobs that expose people to lead include home improvement, painting and refinishing, car or radiator repair, plumbing, construction, welding and cutting, electronics, municipal waste incineration, battery manufacturing, lead compound manufacturing, rubber products and plastics manufacturing, lead smelting and refining, working in brass or bronze foundries, demolition, and working with scrap metal. Some hobbies also use lead. These hobbies include making pottery, stained glass, fish sinkers, and refinishing furniture.
Imported food in cans that are sealed with lead solder: In 1995 the United States banned the use of lead solder on cans. But lead solder can still be found on cans made in other countries. These cans usually have wide seams, and the silver-gray solder along the seams contains the lead. Cans containing lead may be brought to the United States and sold. Over time the lead gets into the food. This happens faster after the can has been opened. Foods that are acidic cause lead to get into the food faster.
Lead-glazed ceramics, china, leaded crystal glassware: Lead may get into foods or liquids that have been stored in ceramics, pottery, china or crystal with lead in it. Lead-glazed dishes usually come from other countries.
Metal jewelry: Lead has been found in inexpensive children’s’ jewelry sold in vending machines and large volume discount stores across the country. It also has been found in inexpensive metal amulets worn for good luck or protection. Some costume jewelry designed for adults has also been found to contain lead. It is important to make sure that children don’t handle or mouth any jewelry.
Mini-blinds: Some non-glossy, vinyl mini-blinds from other countries contain lead.
Folk medicines, ayurvedics and cosmetics: Some folk medicines contain lead. They often are imported from the Middle East, Southeast Asia, India, the Dominican Republic, or Mexico. Two examples are Greta and Azarcon. Azarcon is a bright orange powder also known as Maria Luisa, Rueda, Alarcon, and Coral. Greta is a yellow powder. They are used to treat an upset stomach. Pay-loo-ah also contains lead. It is a red powder used to treat a rash or a fever. Other folk medicines that contain lead include Bala (or Bala Goli), Golf, Ghasard, and Kandu. Some cosmetics such as Kohl (Alkohl) and Surma also contain lead.
Ayurveda is a traditional form of medicine practiced in India and other eastern Asian countries. Ayurvedic medications may contain herbs, minerals, metals or animal products. These medicines may come in both standardized and non-standardized formulations. Ayurvedic medications are typically imported into the United States by both practitioners and followers of Ayurvedic medicine.
Some other common sources of lead: Batteries, radiators for cars and trucks, and some colors of ink also contain lead. The Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) has information about lead in other consumer products. They can also be reached at 800-638-2772.
If you have children, Get Ahead of Lead
Lead poisons people. It is especially bad for children. If lead gets into a child's body, it could cause:
- a lower IQ
- kidney damage
- hearing loss
- growth problems
- behavior problems.
Lead can be found in paint, dust, soil and water. Some Asian and Hispanic folk medicines for stomach upset also have lead.
Here is some information to help parents GET AHEAD OF LEAD.
What causes lead poisoning in children?
The most common cause is lead-based paint. If floors have dust from old painted walls, or paint chips, a baby could breathe in lead dust, or suck on lead-dusted hands or toys. Some toddlers eat paint chips or chew on lead- painted window sills and stair rails.
What are the symptoms of lead poisoning in children?
They can include fatigue, crankiness and stomachaches. But usually there are no signs: a blood lead test is the only sure way to tell.
How is a lead test done?
A small amount of blood is taken from a finger prick or vein and tested for lead. Blood can be drawn at a doctor's office, hospital, clinic or lab. If you don't know where to bring your child for testing, call your local health department.
Which children should be tested?
All children six months to six years should be screened regularly. Children should be tested by their first birthday and again when they're two. Preschool and child care programs will be looking for proof that the child has been tested.
What if the blood test shows a problem?
For some children, simple changes in diet and more frequent hand-washing are all that is needed. Other children, with very high blood lead levels, may need drugs that help the body get rid of lead. Your doctor will decide what your child needs. But treatment is not enough. The source of the lead will have to be found and the problem corrected. Your local health department will advise you.
There are steps parents can take to prevent children from lead.
Keep children away from peeling paint and broken plaster.
Damp mop floors and damp wipe surfaces twice a week to reduce lead dust.
Wash your child's hands often, to rinse off any lead dust or dirt.
Wash your child's toys often, especially teething toys.
Use cold tap water - not hot - for infant formula or cooking. Let the cold water tap run for at least a minute before using, to flush lead picked up from pipes.
Store food from open cans in glass or plastic containers. (Some cans are made with lead solder.)
Use lead-free dishes. Some dishes may have lead in their glazes. Don't use chipped or cracked dishes to store or serve food.
Be careful with your hobbies. Some crafts call for use of paints, glazes and solder (used in making stained glass). Many of these have lead.
Don't bring lead home with you from work. People who work at construction, plumbing, painting, auto repair and certain other jobs can be exposed to lead. You and anyone you live with who is exposed to lead on the job should shower and change into fresh clothes and shoes before coming home.
Wash work clothes separately.
Keep children away from remodeling and renovation sites. Old paint can have lead in it.
Call your local health department for information about professionals who handle lead-based paint problems.
Feed your family foods that get ahead of lead.
Foods high in iron and calcium can help prevent lead poisoning.
For iron dried beans/peas, lean beef/pork, chicken/turkey, spinach, whole grain/fortified breads, eggs, tuna and collard greens
For calcium cheese, milk, yogurt, cottage cheese, ice cream, milkshakes, pudding, cream soups, pizza, lasagna, macaroni and cheese
Feed children healthy snacks: a child with an empty stomach will absorb more lead.
Get good advice.
Call your doctor or local health department to learn more about lead poisoning prevention. And the State Health Department has pamphlets to help you learn more too. Just write:
Albany, NY 12220
Remember, GET AHEAD OF LEAD! Avoiding lead is good for you and good for your children
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