Lead Poisoning

Lead is a dense heavy metal that can harm infants and children if it is ingested or if dust containing lead is inhaled. Lead can also reach a fetus through the bloodstream during pregnancy and reach an infant through breastfeeding. Young children are at highest risk because they are most likely to put their hands or objects containing lead into their mouths.

The effects of lead poisoning usually do not occur immediately but over time, even low levels of exposure can cause serious brain damage, especially to developing brains. The effects of lead poisoning in children can include slowed growth and possibly permanent problems with learning, behavior, hearing, and speech.

The sources of exposure to lead can include chipped, peeling, or dusty paint in older houses built before 1978 when lead-based paint may have been used, water from lead pipes, and soil near highways, factories, or airports. Some hobbies may cause lead exposure and some imported toys, jewelry, traditional medicines, spices, and candies may contain lead.

Lead poisoning can be prevented by eliminating or decreasing exposure to lead. Lead paint can be detected by a licensed lead inspector. Lead paint should only be removed by contractors certified by the Environmental Protection Agency. Homes with lead pipes should be fit with specialized water filters to decrease lead levels, and only bottled water or cold water should be used for drinking and cooking because hot water has higher lead levels.

If you are concerned about buying an object that might have lead in it, check the US Consumer Product Safety commission website for products that have been recalled due to high lead levels (www.cpsc.gov/recalls). Individuals who work with lead should change their clothes before coming home, keep their shoes and tools outside, and wash their clothing separately from those of other household members.

Lead poisoning is diagnosed with a blood test. It should be administered to children suspected of being at risk of lead exposure. Although a safe lead level has not been determined, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) defines elevated blood lead in children as 3.5 micrograms per deciliter (μg/dL) or higher. For adults, a blood lead level greater than 5 μg/dL is defined as elevated.

Treatment of lead poisoning includes identifying and removing the source of lead, a diet high in calcium and iron, and careful monitoring of blood lead levels. Individuals with a very high blood lead level may receive specialized treatment (chelation therapy) to remove lead from their bodies.

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