Young children are at the greatest risk of health problems related to lead exposure, including serious brain and kidney damage. Children age 3 and under are especially vulnerable because their ways of playing and exploring — such as crawling and putting objects in their mouths — increase their risk of contact with lead, and of lead entering their bodies through breathing or swallowing.
What are the common causes of lead exposure?
Children can be exposed to lead through many sources, including:
- Prenatal exposure. Lead crosses the placenta. A newborn typically has a blood-lead concentration level similar to his or her mother's.
- Soil and water. Lead particles from a gasoline additive or paint can settle on soil and last for years, and lead and copper pipes soldered with lead can release particles into tap water.
Lead paint. The use of lead-based paints for homes, children's toys and household furniture has been banned in the United States since 1978. However, lead-based paint is still on walls and woodwork in many older homes and apartments, which can result in children eating lead-based paint chips.
Glazes found on ceramics, china and porcelain also can contain lead, which leaches into food. Lead-based paint may be found in toys and other products produced abroad.
- Children's products. Lead may be found in children's jewelry or products made of vinyl or plastic, such as bibs, backpacks, car seats and lunch boxes. A child can absorb lead found in these products by mouthing or chewing on them or can inhale lead if the product is burned, damaged or deteriorating.
- Household dust. Household dust can contain lead from paint chips or soil brought in from outside.
- Food. Food can be contaminated with lead during production, processing, packaging, preparation or storage. For example, vegetables may be grown in soil that contains lead, or exposed to exhaust from fuel that contains lead. Lead can leak into canned foods from tins manufactured with lead solder. And some food containers and pots contain lead, such as lead-glazed pottery and leaded crystal glassware.
- Folk or home health remedies and certain cosmetics. Some traditional remedies, such as the indigestion treatments azarcon and greta, may contain lead. Also, some types of paints and pigments used in makeup and hair dye contain lead.
- Artificial athletic fields. Artificial turf made of nylon or a nylon and polyethylene blend may contain unhealthy levels of lead dust, which could be inhaled or ingested by a child.
How can I protect my child from lead exposure?
You can take simple measures to minimize your child's risk of lead exposure. For example:
What you can do at home
Check your house. Homes built before 1978 are most likely to contain lead. Professional cleaning, proper paint stabilization techniques and repairs done by a certified contractor can reduce lead exposure.
Be sure to protect your family and belongings while lead issues are being addressed. Before you buy a home, have it inspected for lead. Before you sign a lease, ask the landlord about lead.
Keep children out of potentially contaminated areas. Don't allow your child near old windows, old porches, bare soil, dirt next to an old home, or areas with chipping or peeling paint as well as old window putty that is flaking or chipping.
If possible, lay sod on areas of bare soil or cover bare spots with grass seed, mulch or wood chips. If your home contains chipping or peeling paint, clean up chips immediately and cover peeling patches with duct tape or contact paper until the paint can be removed.
Filter water. Ion exchange filters, reverse osmosis filters and distillation can effectively remove lead from water. If you don't use a filter and live in an older home, run cold tap water for 15 to 30 seconds before using it.
Use cold tap water for cooking, drinking or making baby formula. Hot water absorbs lead more quickly than does cold water.
- Take precautions in the kitchen. Store food in glass, plastic or stainless steel containers — not open cans. If you're not sure if pottery has a lead glaze, use it only for decoration.
- Keep your home clean. Regularly wipe floors and other surfaces with a damp mop or sponge.
- Encourage good hygiene. Make sure your child washes his or her hands and face after playing outside or with pets and before eating and sleeping. Also, regularly wash children's toys, which may become contaminated from soil or household dust.
- Avoid traditional remedies and certain cosmetics. If you're not sure if a traditional remedy or cosmetic contains lead, don't allow your child to use it.
- Promote a balanced diet. Eating a diet high in iron and calcium may decrease a child's absorption of lead.
Tips for at work or play
Avoid certain children's products and toys. Avoid buying nonbrand toys, old toys, and toys from discount shops or private vendors — unless you can be sure that the toys have been produced without lead or other harmful substances.
Don't give costume jewelry to young children. Regularly check lead recall lists, and keep in mind that commercial lead test kits may not be reliable.
Take precautions around artificial athletic fields. Don't allow your child to eat on an artificial field, and keep drinking containers — when not in use — in a bag or covered container. After leaving the field, have your child remove his or her clothes and turn them inside out to avoid tracking contaminated dust from the play area.
If clothing can't be removed, have your child sit on a towel or blanket in your vehicle. Wash contaminated clothing, towels and blankets separately. Have your child bathe with soap and water after playing on the field.
Keep shoes worn on the field outside of your home. Ideally, remove all shoes when you enter the house and wear no shoes inside or use house slippers indoors.
Take precautions after working with lead. After working with lead, change your clothes and shoes and take a shower. Keep contaminated clothing in the work area or wash your work clothing — separately — as soon as possible.
Also, keep materials used for hobbies that may involve lead, such as ceramics making, away from children and areas where they spend time.
If you think your child has been exposed to lead, ask your child's doctor about a blood test to check for lead.