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Articles » Lead Poisoning: NIEHS_1

Lead Poisoning: NIEHS_1

Article title: Lead Poisoning: NIEHS_1

Conditions: Lead Poisoning

Source: NIEHS

Lead Poisoning

Question: With so much media discussion about lead poisoning, I am concerned about my children. How do I know if my children are being poisoned?

Answer: There is a lot of discussion about lead levels in the blood and the possible damage to the nervous system including the brain, kidneys and red blood cells. Lead is all around us in paint, batteries, drinking water, and pottery and other ceramic dishes that are hand glazed. Before leaded gasoline was banned, tons of lead from engine exhaust were emitted into the air we breathe. Lead in paint has also been banned, but exposure can occur in houses that are more than 20 years old. The problem here is when the paint flakes off and small children pick it up. Of course, it goes right to the mouth and because it tastes sweet, the child looks for more. If the paint is not flaking, there is no need to remove it. For peace of mind, one can paint over the lead-based paint to reduce the chance of exposure. In 1986, the use of lead solder for plumbing was also banned.

The first thing you should do is have your physician or local health department determine the lead concentration in the blood of your children. The average background level, i.e., the level present in the persons who have known exposure to lead, is about 5 mcg/dl. Some people have slightly higher levels and some have slightly lower levels. By determining the levels in your child's blood, you can determine if your child is being exposed to higher levels of lead.

If the blood level is elevated above 10 mcg/dl, have the test repeated because these tests can easily be contaminated. If the second blood test is above 10 mcg/dl, the best thing you can do is to eliminate any further exposure to lead. Try to determine where and how your child is being exposed to lead. Have your local health department check the lead level in your tap water, especially if your house was built before 1986. if there are small amounts of lead in your tap water, let the water run for a couple of minutes before drawing water for drinking or cooking. Do the children put jewelry or printed matter in their mouth? Are the toys and materials like crayons made in the U.S.? Some countries are not as stringent as the U.S. in regulating the lead content in consumer products. Is there an old battery or car radiator in the garage that the child sometimes plays with? Have the soil and play areas tested for lead. Eliminating the source of lead, is the most important thing you can do.

What can you do to reduce the blood levels in your children? At this time, there is considerable debate about what therapy to administer if any. Some promote chelation therapy in which a drug is administered that binds or encloses the lead ions and then is excreted. The problem is that only a small fraction of the lead in the body is in the blood. So, if you remove all the lead in the blood today, lead in other body tissue will equilibrate with the blood so that after all of the drug is excreted, the lead concentration in the blood will build back up to near pretreatment levels. Of course, one could routinely administer the drug over and over; however these drugs can damage the liver and/or kidneys, especially over multiple doses. Also, these drugs are rather not-specific and can eliminate essential metal ions from the blood. You will need to discuss with your physician, what the best action or therapy is for your child. However, unless you eliminate exposure, therapy will be of little help.

Call the NIEHS Office of Communications (919-541-3345) today for a free copy of the NIEHS booklet, "Lead and Your Health," NIH publication No.92-3465, or see our Web version at

Also, please see The Children's Television Workshop's "We Beat the Lead" and "The Lead Threat".



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