Lead poisoning occurs over many months or years of exposure to lead in the environment. It is especially harmful to children under age 6, and more so for children under age 3.
In children, lead poisoning can stunt growth, cause brain damage, kidney damage, and hearing damage, and can permanently damage mental development. In adults, it can increase blood pressure, cause digestive problems, kidney damage, nerve disorders, sleep problems, and muscle and joint pain.
Poisoning can be determined by a test that measures the levels of lead in the blood.
The most common sources of lead in the home are peeling or chipping lead-based paint and lead in dust or soil. Houses built before 1978 may have some lead-based paint; those built before 1950 often have the highest levels of lead-based paint. Lead can also come from solder or plumbing fixtures, especially in homes built before 1986.
Children can swallow harmful amounts of lead if they play in the dirt or in dusty areas (even indoors) and then put their fingers, clothes, or toys in their mouths, or if they eat without first washing their hands.
If you suspect your home might have excessive lead levels, you can reduce the exposure to your family by following these guidelines:
Do not try to remove lead yourself. Only a trained lead contractor should do so. To find one, contact your local environmental or health department. Call 1-800-424-LEAD or go to www.epa.gov/lead for contact information. Do-it-yourself kits are not recommended.
Have water from each faucet tested, or test the water of faucets with the longest leads. Find qualified laboratories through your state or local environment or health department.
Use only cold water for cooking or drinking. Hot water is likely to have higher levels of lead than cold in older homes (built before 1986).
Clean floors, windowsills, and door frames with a solution of powdered automatic dishwashing detergent, tri-sodium phosphate detergent, or lead-specific cleaning products.
Wipe and rinse toys with warm, soapy water often; wash pacifiers and bottles any time they fall on the floor.
Children's hands should be washed frequently, especially before eating and sleeping, and after playing. Keep their play areas as clean as possible.
Teach children not to eat sand, dirt, or paint chips, and to play in grassy areas outside.
Don't scrape, sand, or burn painted wood.
Keep children and pregnant women out of the home if it is being renovated, when lead dust can be stirred up easily.
Don't store food or beverages in crystal containers or reused metal cans that weren't made in the U.S.; both might contain some lead.
In every issue of WebMD the Magazine, we ask experts to answer readers' questions about a wide range of topics, including some of the oldest -- and most cherished -- medical myths out there. For our November-December 2011 issue, we asked Michael Wahl, MD, medical director of the Illinois Poison Center, in Chicago, about the relative risks of eating poinsettia.
Q: I've always heard that poinsettias are poisonous to kids and pets. My husband says that's hogwash. Who's right?
Like the Christmas...