Though the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission banned lead as an ingredient in paint in 1978, it still can be found lurking in our environment — perhaps scarier, our kids’ environment.
The majority of exposures come from inside our homes from things like dust, dishware, toys, water that is passed through lead pipes and, of course, chipping paint.
“The older the house, especially those built before 1978, the higher the risk for lead exposure,” said Dr. Joel Davidson, a pediatrician at Locust Pediatric Care Group and leader of the LEAD (Lead Exposure And Detoxification) Clinic at Akron Children’s Hospital. “Even lead paint that’s been painted over several times can chip and kids can ingest it. Though most exposures in the home are created from dust.”
Layers of paint can wear away when surfaces rub together, such as the opening and closing of doors. The friction can create lead dust clouds that kids breathe in or that settle onto their toys where it can be ingested. Major renovations done on older homes or refinishing furniture with lead-based paint also can release lead dust into the air.
Additional risks come from contaminated soil, certain hobbies like fishing or hunting, or parents who bring home traces of lead on unchanged clothes from industrial occupations.
Unfortunately, no amount of lead exposure is considered safe for children, and the damaging effects of lead are critical and life altering.
Studies have shown for children younger than 6, lead exposure can be dangerous to their rapidly developing brains. It can lead to behavioral problems, developmental delays, difficulty with executive function such as decision making, and learning issues. In fact, the AAP estimates 1 in 5 cases of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder are attributed to lead exposure.
What’s more, a recent study in an American Medical Association journal found children who experienced high lead exposures experienced a dip in IQ and socioeconomic status later as adults.
“Even small levels can cause effects,” said Dr. Davidson. “Unfortunately, many kids exposed have no symptoms until school-age and that’s why we have to screen for lead exposure. Symptoms normally don’t appear until dangerous amounts have accumulated in the blood.”
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) estimates 37 million homes across the country contain lead-based paint. In Akron, about 85% of its homes were built before 1978, increasing the likelihood they contain lead-based paint.
So it’s no surprise about 4.6% of Dr. Davidson’s 12,000 patients tested from 2012 to 2014 had elevated levels of lead in their blood, compared to the national average of 2%.
After these findings in 2015, Akron Children’s Hospital and Kent State University researchers identified hot spots in Akron where kids are more likely to have elevated lead levels, including West Akron, North Hill and Summit Lake neighborhoods.
“The key is prevention in the first place,” said Dr. Davidson. “If you have peeling paint on an old windowsill or lead pipes in the home, these things need to be addressed right away before a child has an opportunity to be exposed.”
The question remains, should I get my child tested for lead poisoning?
Lead testing is mandated for all Medicaid patients at ages 12 and 24 months. For other Ohio children under the age of 6, the Ohio Department of Health developed these screening questions. If you answer yes to any of the following questions regarding your children, testing blood for lead is required.
- Does the child live in or regularly visit a property built before 1978 that has peeling/chipping paint or recent/ongoing renovation (includes child care centers, preschools, homes of baby sitters or relatives)?
- Does the child live in a high-risk ZIP code?
- Does the child live in or regularly visit a home built before 1950?
- Does the child have a sibling or playmate who has or had lead poisoning?
- Does the child frequently come in contact with an adult who has a hobby or job with lead exposure (construction, welding, pottery, painting, casting ammunition)?
- Did the child’s mother have known lead exposure during her pregnancy?
- Is the child or mother an immigrant or refugee?
- Does the child live near an active or former lead smelter, battery recycling plant or other industry known to release lead?
If you suspect your child has been exposed, contact your pediatrician for a blood screening.
First and foremost, the likely source of exposure should be identified and remedied by a certified lead abatement contractor.
Then in most cases, treatment involves monitoring a child’s blood levels as it naturally declines after the exposure has been eliminated. For those kids with life-threatening blood levels, an IV medication may be used to lower it quickly.
“Unfortunately, once a child is exposed, the effects are irreversible,” he said. “That’s why it’s so important to prevent exposure in the first place.”