By Drs. Sally Robinson and Keith Bly
According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, more than 25 percent of children in the U.S. live in homes or apartments that have significant amounts of lead in contaminated paint, dust, soil or plumbing.
High levels of lead in a child’s blood can cause a variety of problems with both physical and cognitive development (the ability to learn and understand). Early symptoms of lead poisoning include headaches, abdominal pain, irritability, anemia, loss of appetite, vomiting, constipation, decreased activity, poor attention span, noticeable learning difficulty, slowed speech development and hyperactivity. The effects of lead poisoning are reading and learning disabilities, speech and language handicaps, lowered I.Q., neurological deficits, behavior problems, mental retardation, kidney disease, heart disease, stroke and death.
Research has shown that even low lead levels can affect the cognitive development and I.Q. level of a child. Children with high levels of lead in their blood are less attentive, hyperactive, disorganized and less able to follow instructions.
Homes built before 1980 may contain lead-based paint, which has been banned in the U.S. since 1978. If you are worried about lead levels in your home, testing kits are available. Professionals can also be hired to examine your house for lead contamination. The age of the home is most important when it comes to identifying the risk. Homes built before the 1960s have the greatest risk of having lead-based paint on their walls.
You can lower the risk of your child getting lead poisoning:
• If your home or apartment was built before 1978, ask your pediatrician about testing your child’s blood for lead contamination, and keep your child away from peeling paint.
• If you are remodeling an old home, seal off rooms that you are working on.
• Repaint rooms to seal in lead-based paint.
• If there is a problem with lead poisoning in the area where you live, or if older houses in your neighborhood are being remodeled, have your family members wipe their feet or remove their shoes before entering the house.
• Wash your children’s faces and hands before meals and after they play outside.
Soil can become contaminated from leaded gasoline fumes, even though gas is now unleaded, because lead does not break down in the soil. Soil is most likely to be contaminated in areas around heavily traveled roadways, older houses with peeling exterior paint, hazardous waste sites, places where batteries are manufactured or repaired, construction sites and places where cars are abandoned or repaired. Encourage your children to stay away from these areas and play in grassy areas or sand, rather than in dirt.
During your baby, toddler or preschooler’s check-ups, your pediatrician will ask questions and may give a blood test to determine if your child has been exposed to lead. If your child’s lead level is above the normal range, your pediatrician will give you information on lowering it. Your child will then be tested every few months until the lead level drops to the normal range. Only a small number of babies and children have high enough lead levels in their blood to require treatment. If your child’s blood lead level is too high, your pediatrician will prescribe a medication to lower the amount of lead in the blood.
Dr. Sally Robinson is a pediatrician in the division of children’s special services at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston. She teaches medical students about caring for children with chronic medical conditions. Dr. Keith Bly is a hospitalist and assistant professor of pediatrics at UTMB.
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