Aug. 15, 2007 -- Lead poisoning -- at levels that do not cause immediate symptoms -- can permanently damage kids' brains.
Before their second birthday, children are particularly susceptible to lead poisoning. They are, of course, more likely than older children to put lead-contaminated hands or toys or paint chips in their mouths. Moreover, a child's gastrointestinal tract also absorbs lead more readily than does the adult gut.
Most importantly, a child's rapidly developing brain is highly vulnerable to lead toxicity, says pediatrics professor John Rosen, MD, director of the lead program at the Children's Hospital at Montefiore Medical Center, Bronx, N.Y.
"Lead can be extremely dangerous for young children and can affect their lives forever," Rosen tells WebMD. "It is better to be conservative and safe and not ever sorry about excessive lead exposure."
Lead poisoning is almost never a single event in which a child ingests harmful quantities of lead, gets sick, and must be rushed to the hospital. Instead, lead poisoning is an insidious, month-by-month accumulation of lead in a child's body.
"I have supervised 30,000 cases of child lead poisoning, and I have not seen a case of symptomatic lead poisoning for many years," Rosen says.
That's why lead-painted toys can be such a problem, says John Benitez, MD, director of the Lawrence Poison and Drug Information Center and associate professor of pediatric and environmental medicine at the University of Rochester, N.Y.
"Parents need to know it is not an acute problem," Benitez tells WebMD. "If a kid just touches and plays with a lead painted toy, it is not a problem. But if that child sits and chews on it for weeks and months and absorbs lead -- that becomes a risk."
What, exactly, is lead poisoning? How do you know if your child is at risk? What should you do if your child has a worrisome level of lead exposure? WebMD consulted experts for answers to these and other questions.
What Is Lead Poisoning?
The risks of lead have been known for decades. But there is surprisingly little agreement on exactly when a child has accumulated a toxic amount of lead.