By Spencer Warren


It has been said that a nation's most valuable resource is its children, and this is true on a myriad of levels ranging from the emotional and psychological to their physical well being.  In a day when parents have their hands full worrying about babysitters, drunk drivers and what can be found on the television and internet, most would agree that the most horrifying dangers are the ones you can't see coming, and which threaten us even within the sanctity of our own home.  This factor is what makes lead poisoning so insidious.  It cannot be seen, smelled or even tasted yet its effects upon a child's health can be utterly devastating and irreversible. 

In many ways, the federal government's attention to the issue of lead contamination has been a success story; due largely to preventive measures taken upon the petroleum, paint and battery-manufacturing industries.  As these heavy sources of lead were phased out, testing by the American Medical Association and Center for Disease Control indicated that blood lead levels in adults and children dropped by a whopping 75 percent over the last 20 years.  A government at its finest is one that wins battles in the protection of its peoples, and this certainly seems like a victory in the making.  However, the most difficult front in the war on lead is not being fought in industry but in housing, and this explains why one in ten American children are currently suffering from lead poisoning and at risk of permanent and irreversible damage.  Even today lead poisoning is still an issue, but misconceptions and a lack of information leads many to believe that the problem has gone away. 

Prior to 1978, when the amount of lead allowed to be used in commercial paints was drastically reduced to a microscopic level, lead paint could be found everywhere, including exterior and interior paints, varnishes and stains, epoxies and a great number of other sources such as airborne dust, lead-lined water pipes and soils.  Most Americans remain unaware of just how widespread the level of lead toxicity in our children was until the late 1970's, but reliable testing indicates that more than 80 percent of our nation's children had a blood lead level of over 25 microgram per deciliter of blood, a level determined to be toxic and damaging.  It is the quiet, undetectable nature of this problem that makes it so difficult to deal with.  Apparently innocent and harmless behaviors such as playing with antique toys, petting a household animal, frolicking in the front yard or even drinking a glass of water take on a sinister risk that unfortunately brings recognition far too late, when permanent and irreversible damage has been done to the child's central nervous system.

The greatest exposure to lead comes from dust.  20 years ago this source of lead dust was determined to come primarily from combustion engines burning leaded gasoline and the pollutants expelled from battery plants.  Those sources were regulated and enforced, and as a result the numbers fell dramatically.  During the early 1990's the number of children suffering from lead poisoning began to level out, and government programs already in place quickly moved to find the remaining sources.  It didn't require years of research or a panel of experts to determine
that the primary source of lead toxicity was housing built before 1978, and as usual the majority of victims were the poor.  New homes and schools constructed today are almost completely lead-free, thanks to a host of vital federal laws and industry regulations, but testing has repeatedly shown that even children living in new housing are not completely safe.

It takes such a small amount of ingested lead dust to cause bodily harm that the source can easily be overlooked.  It might be a neighbor's house, or more often a yard.  It could be antiquated lead-lined water pipes in a public library or school.  It could be a nation whose lead laws are less strict than those in America (Mexico being a prime example).  In an unusual case, a health department worker who labored diligently to assist lead-poisoned children was actually poisoned herself after enjoying chewing gum purchased from a local Mexican vendor. Only by education can we properly guard and protect ourselves against this silent killer.

Another discomforting problem with lead contamination is that there may or may not be symptoms, and if symptoms are present they can be very misleading and easily misdiagnosed.  A child with a short attention span who was experiencing drowsiness (or hyperactivity) and who complained of stomach pains, headaches or was experiencing eating disorders could be said to have any number of ailments common to the twentieth century, but only a blood test would reveal that lead is the culprit.  As bad as the symptoms may be, the effects are even worse.  Brain damage, learning and behavioral disorders, convulsions and even death can all result from prolonged exposure to lead.  In the words of a local environmental consultant with more than 22 years of experience in every aspect of the lead issue, Richard Baker of Baker Environmental Consulting, Inc., "Every day with a lead-poisoned child is a battle.  Unless you experience it, you just can't comprehend how serious this problem is once real damage has been done."

Although not true with most children, adults whose brains are fully developed can be chelated (a medical process for removing lead from the blood stream) and the effects of lead poisoning can usually be reversed to a degree.  But even in adults, once the bloodstream takes lead to the brain, it stays there.  Being a base element, lead never breaks down and once lodged in human tissue cells, it never goes away.  But for a child with a developing central nervous system, the effects are almost always permanent and can include serious retardation and a measurable loss of I.Q.

Thankfully, preventive measures are well known and documented to be extremely effective.  First and foremost, get your child tested for lead after their first birthday, and then at least every couple of years.  If your job involves lead or your home is known to be contaminated, much more regular testing may be required.  Many municipal health departments offer free lead testing to area residents, and all are encouraged to avail themselves of this service. If you live in a home that is known to contain lead (pre-1978 housing, for instance) there are some simple practices that can greatly reduce your child's exposure to lead. 

1.)  Clean and dust regularly.  Inhaled or ingested dust is the greatest source of lead poisoning.  Floors, window sills and troughs are the primary areas of concern.
2.)  Wash anything that comes into contact with your child on a regular basis (i.e. pacifiers, toys, stuffed animals, etc.)
3.)  Insist upon routine personal hygiene such as washing hands and face before meals, nap time and bed time.
4.)  Never let your child get into the habit of chewing on non-food items such as objects that are painted or may contain lead.  If these behaviors are exhibited at home they are sure to be done elsewhere.
5.)  Do not try to remove sources of lead yourself, and be extremely cautious if any remodeling is being done.  Scraping and sanding old paints, stains, schlacks  and varnishes literally fills the air with
deadly lead dust for all to inhale or ingest.
6.)  If remodeling has been done, make sure a thorough cleanup is performed afterwards.
7.)  Encourage your children to play in grassy or paved areas as opposed to areas of exposed soil or high dust content.  Airborne lead is still a major risk factor, in spite of industrial controls, and there are no places in America where dust and dirt are completely lead-free.
8.)  Be careful about pottery and dishware, especially if it is antique or imported, and keep all edibles properly sealed and protected from airborne dust.
9.) Have your drinking water checked for lead, even in a newer home.   Lead simply gets everywhere, and the smallest amount of contamination anywhere along the line of water supply could be enough to cause permanent injury.  Running your water for thirty seconds prior to use is
a good preventive habit that can reduce lead levels in drinking water.
10.)  Exercise proper nutritional habits.  Studies show that a child who gets enough iron, vitamin D and calcium in their diet will absorb less lead, while diets high in fat will actually increase the bodies ability to assimilate lead into the bloodstream.

     For more information on lead poisoning and its effects or on preventive measures, contact your local health department, the Environmental Protection Agency, or the department of Housing and Urban Development. Below are some handy phone numbers and web site addresses.

Health Department
Division of Maternal and Child Health
City of Kansas City, Missouri
(816) 983-3102

Center for Disease Control
National Center for Environmental Health
(888) 232-6789

Environmental Protection Agency
(913) 551-5000

Housing and Urban Development
(913) 551-6736

LeadBusters, Inc.
(913) 438-LEAD (5323)

Baker Environmental Consulting, Inc.
(913) 541-0220

Baker Environmental Consulting
Richard Baker
(913) 541-0220

LeadBusters, Inc.
Kansas City Lead Training
(913) 438-LEAD (5323)

Lead Based Paint Hazard Control Grant Program
U.S. Housing and Urban Development (H.U.D.)

Lead Poisoning and Your Children
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
EPA Document #800-B-92-0002

Spencer Warren is a freelance writer who works for the City of Kansas
City, Missouri in the Lead-Safe 2000 Program to rid area single-family
homes of lead contamination.

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