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Lead Poisoning and Kids

Lead Poisoning: What It Is, How to Test, What to Do

What Is Lead Poisoning? continued...

The CDC says about 310,000 American kids (1 to 5 years old) have blood-lead levels over 10 micrograms/dL.

A U.S. child's main risk of lead poisoning comes from the lead-based house paints in near-universal use before 1950. The paints were banned for housing use in 1978. An estimated 24 million U.S. housing units -- which some 4 million young children call home -- have deteriorated lead paint contributing to lead-contaminated house dust.

"Very small particles of paint get into household dust you cannot see," Rosen says. "That gets on hair, fingers, toys, and skin. Through normal hand-mouth activity, that paint is absorbed."

How long it takes a child to absorb toxic levels of lead depends on the concentration of lead in the dust. Rosen says that in a typical lead-contaminated housing unit, it takes one to six months for a small child's blood-lead levels to rise to a level of concern.

"If the amount of hand-to-mouth activity is robust, and the concentrations of lead in that housing unit are substantial, it does not take long," he warns.

What about the recently discovered lead paint on children's toys?

"In terms of pervasiveness and widespread distribution of those toys, only time will tell how many children will be identified who develop lead poisoning. At the present time that is unknown, although the risk is definite," Rosen says.

  • As you sort through your child's toy box, are you thinking ofasking your pediatrician for a lead poisoning test? Some folks on our Parenting: 9-12 Months message board are doing just that. Read their comments and share yours.

What Are the Risks of Lead Poisoning?

Rosen says the ultimate effects of lead on children include:

  • Loss of IQ points
  • Impairments in language fluency or communication
  • Memory problems
  • Trouble paying attention
  • Lack of concentration
  • Poor fine-motor skills
  • Difficulty with planning and organization
  • Difficulty forming abstract concepts
  • Poor cognitive flexibility (trying something else if the first thing you try doesn't solve a problem)

"To fully test children to see if there are any adverse outcomes from lead poisoning cannot be done until they reach their sixth birthday," Rosen says. "Many of these symptoms don't manifest until age 6 or 7 years. What a parent might know before that might well be some common complaints such as speech delay, hyperactivity, not being able to sit/listen/learn in school, and not being able to focus. Those observations may be the result of earlier childhood lead poisoning."

Is Your Child at Risk of Lead Poisoning?

Except in those rare cases in which a child ingests a huge amount of lead, lead poisoning has no obvious, immediate symptoms.

"Over time, you may notice tiredness, nonspecific belly complaints, or a child may become anemic," Benitez says. "Unless you are eating blocks of lead, there are no acute or sudden symptoms that would appear in minutes. That is the problem with lead -- the subtle, slow dose over time."

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