The Risk of Lead Exposure

Lead exposure has re-surfaced as a very public topic and concern over the last 2 years since the population of Flint Michigan was affected by severe lead contamination in its water supply. Even after the advent of lead-free gasoline and lead-free pipes, lead still poses a real risk for our unborn babies and children.

And why is this important, anyway?

First of all, what is lead? It’s a naturally occurring heavy metal, but much of its presence in the environment stems from its historic use in paint, gasoline, and from ongoing or historic mining, industrial and commercial operations.

When ingested or inhaled, babies and children can develop serious health issues – ranging from bone and teeth changes, growth retardation, severe anemia, abdominal pain, pica (compulsive eating of non-food items), attentional issues, to reduced IQ and cognitive function and permanent brain damage. Pregnant woman can also be affected with an increased rate of premature birth and more miscarriages and stillbirths than the general population. New data from Flint also points to more infertility in men and early miscarriages in women exposed to excessive levels of lead.

In this day and age, lead is found in small amounts naturally everywhere in the environment but more commonly found in urban areas. Lead doesn’t discriminate!

So, who is at most risk for lead exposure?

  • Children living in or visiting homes built before 1978 – especially if there is renovation ongoing (making old lead paint airborne) or peeling paint.
  • Children and pregnant women who use traditional, folk or ethnic remedies – because these are not regulated by the FDA, they can contain lead and other impurities that are harmful.
  • Families of adults who work with lead. Some examples are battery recycling or manufacture, electronic recycling, lead smelting, lead mining, auto repair, shipbuilding, construction, plumbing and glass manufacturing. Even hobbies like stain glass and jewelry making make expose families to lead.
  • Children who chew on lead paint or lead components from imported toys, jewelry, or even eating off of lead containing dishes and pottery.
  • Recent immigrants, refugees, or foreign adoptees.
  • Children with a sibling or frequent playmate with elevated blood levels.
  • Infants, children and pregnant women consuming water with lead levels in excess of 15 parts per billion.

How can we test for lead?

“2 by 2”:  Your child’s pediatrician should be checking your baby twice – at age 1 and age 2, or any time after that if your child or family is at risk. Lead testing can be done by a finger prick, and if the result is elevated, a blood level taken from the vein is done to verify the level. For older children and adults, lead testing can be done in the office or at a lab.

What can you do to reduce the risk of lead exposure?

  • Make sure your children are tested at ages 1 and 2 by their health care provider. If you are contemplating a pregnancy, or are pregnant, it’s a good idea for you to be tested, too. Lead that may be stored in your bones is released and shared with your fetus during pregnancy.
  • If your home was built before 1978, make sure there is no peeling or cracking paint accessible to your child. If sanding and repainting, have a professional mask off the rooms being worked on, close your vents, and have the room cleaned before repainting.
  • Check all pottery, cookware, and utensils to make sure they are lead-free. When in doubt, never use to serve food, ESPECIALLY if the glaze has worn through or is cracked.
  • Homes built before 1986 are more likely to have lead pipes, fixtures and solder, although newer homes may also be at risk. If your pipes are older, and you can’t replace them, flush out your faucet for 15-30 seconds in the morning with cold water. Any lead that may have accumulated overnight is less likely be present.
  • Test your drinking water for lead, and if detectable, install filters where you obtain water (don’t forget the bathroom sinks and bathtub).
  • Don’t buy trinkets, jewelry or toys from anyone but reputable sellers. Baby healing and teething bracelets sold in public markets and other trinkets have been found to be full of lead.
  • Don’t purchase imported cans of food that may still contain lead (from soldering them shut). Some chili-based candies imported from Mexico, “natural” calcium supplements and folk remedies and cosmetics are at greater risk of containing lead, so steer clear of those.
  • If you work in a lead-risk occupation, change clothes and shower before embracing your kids.

What if I find out my child or family member has elevated lead levels?

  • First, have your healthcare provider will verify the level.
  • Next, you’ll likely have to take stock of where the exposure might be occurring and abate any known causes
  • A dietary history should be taken to see if there is lead in supplements or foods, utensils, etc.
  • Lead levels, if not highly elevated, then are watched to see if there is a decrease or no change. All family members and close contacts are typically tested to see who is affected.
  • Particular attention is paid to monitoring the neurodevelopmental status of children.
  • For levels of 5 and above, abdominal xrays may be done to see if lead has been eaten/ingested.
  • When levels are excessive (45 and above), medications are given to chelate (absorb) lead from the body. This is a lengthy process as lead must be removed from the blood and all the organs, as well as bone.

What is key here is to be aware of possible risk factors that may come your way and do your best to reduce them. Talk with your healthcare provider about testing, keep reading and be safe!




About Dr. JJ Levenstein

Dr. JJ Levenstein is a board-certified pediatrician and fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics and in 2012 retired from her thriving private pediatric practice in Encino, California. She served on the staff of CHLA and Encino Tarzana Hospitals for 20 years and was consistently voted one of the Best Doctors in America® from 2003 through 2012. Drawing from her experience as a pediatrician and mom, Dr. Levenstein serves as president and co-founder of MD Moms, makers of Baby Silk, the first personal care line for babies developed by pediatrician moms. She serves on the board of United Cerebral Palsy LA, is an active writer and sits on the advisory boards of several child-centered websites. She is an accomplished chef and completed culinary school in 2013! She has had a lifelong interest in child nutrition and all things related to preventive health.

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