More than half a million US kids aged 1 to 5 years have blood lead levels higher than 5 micrograms per deciliter (µg/dL), the “level of concern” at which health problems may occur.
The new data comes from a US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report, which found 2.6 percent of young US children (535,000) may be at risk from lead poisoning.
Why Lead is So Dangerous for Children
Lead is a naturally occurring metal that was once commonly used in gasoline, paint and children’s toys, and is still a part of batteries, pipes, pottery, roofing materials and cosmetics.
Lead is known to cause damage to your brain and nervous system. Even small amounts can be dangerous, as lead builds up in your body over time.
Children under 6 are especially at risk, not only because they’re more likely to come into contact with lead via household dust and paint but also because they’re still developing and absorb it more easily than adults. The greatest risk of lead exposure is to brain development, as permanent damage can occur.
In pregnant women, lead is linked to miscarriages, premature birth, low birth weight, brain damage and reduced growth in young children. For children, lead exposure may cause:
Damage to the brain and nervous system Behavior and learning problems, such as hyperactivity Slowed growth Hearing problems Headaches Anemia Seizures Coma and even death
Signs of Lead Poisoning Can be Easy to Miss
The initial symptoms of lead poisoning can be easy to miss, increasing the likelihood of continued exposure – and worsening health problems.
If you have young children, it’s imperative to be on the lookout for some of the most common signs of lead poisoning, especially if you live in a home that was built prior to 1978, as it is likely to contain at least some lead-based paint. Common symptoms of lead poisoning in children include:
Fatigue, lethargy or sometimes hyperactivity Headaches Weight loss Insomnia Constipation Irritability Metallic taste in your mouth Nausea, vomiting or abdominal pain Poor appetite Reduced cognitive abilities Learning difficulties Slowed growth
Contaminated Soil May be a Significant Source of Lead Exposure
Lead-based paint, and consequently lead-contaminated dust, are typically regarded as the major sources of lead exposure to US children. It’s estimated that 24 million housing units in the US have deteriorated leaded paint and lead-contaminated household dust, 4 million of which are home to young children.1
However, while most people are now aware of the issues associated with lead paint in older homes, far fewer are aware that lead is often a contaminant in soil, thanks to remnants of leaded gasoline and other lead-containing pollutants.
According to one study, seasonal variations in children’s blood lead levels in industrial cities like Detroit can be tied to lead in contaminated soil that becomes airborne dust during the summer.2 This suggests that it’s not only children exposed to leaded paint that may be at risk, but also those living or playing near contaminated soil outdoors.
If you live in an urban area, or near a busy road, it’s probably best to assume that your soil is contaminated with lead to some extent or another. This is also an issue if you plan to plant a vegetable garden, as vegetables can take up lead from the soil very efficiently.
Lead Warnings Coming to Baby Food?
The Environmental Law Foundation filed a lawsuit in California against several large baby food makers, including Beech-Nut Nutrition, Del Monte Foods, Dole and Gerber. The suit alleges that many of the baby foods and juices sold by the companies contain lead that must be noted on a warning label under California law.
As mentioned, vegetables and fruits can be very effective at taking up metals such as lead from the soil. While lead does occur naturally in soil, if the food is grown in an area with heavily contaminated soil, it could end up with unsafe levels of lead or other pollutants.
Court documents noted that despite the trace amounts of lead in the products at issue, most Americans need to eat more of such fruits and vegetables – not less. The lawsuit is still pending, so it remains to be seen whether the lead warning labels will soon be added to baby food sold in California.
Your Tap Water May Also Contain Lead
Another little talked about source of lead exposure is the pipes that carry tap water into your home. When your water leaves a treatment plant, it is transported into large pipes, or mains, that run under your city’s streets. These are typically made of cast iron or concrete. The problem occurs when the water flows into smaller pipes known as service lines, which carry the water directly to your home.
An estimated 3.3 to 6.4 million service lines in the United States are made out of lead, and while they are found across the country, they’re especially common in older neighborhoods in the Midwest and Northeast. This, of course, makes it very likely that your home’s tap water is being contaminated by this poison virtually 24/7.
You probably assume that if your water contains dangerous levels of lead, you’ll be notified immediately, but this is not always the case. Some water utilities may be “gaming the system” by cherry-picking which houses it tests in order to keep any lead problems hidden. In another tactic, water companies are “gifting” lead service lines to homeowners, and saying they no longer have any responsibility for the pipes. Replacing lead service lines on your property can cost thousands of dollars, and may increase lead levels during, and after, the replacement.
What to Do If You Have Lead Pipes
If you think your water may be supplied via lead pipes, your safest and most economical choice — if you don’t have access to a clean spring or private well — is to make sure your water is filtered when it comes out of your tap, or, alternatively, when it comes into your home. Many people will have carbon water filters on their taps even if they have a whole house filter, and this is indeed a good idea. The reason for this is because the internal house pipes could release lead even after being filtered through the whole house, so ideally, you may want to have both.
Large carbon filters and a whole house water filtration system will remove dangerous levels of lead, along with the host of other contaminants, including over 500 toxic disinfectant by-products,that are often present in drinking water. In addition, if you know you have lead pipes, and especially if you haven’t installed a filter, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA),3 also recommends you:
- Use cold water for drinking or cooking. Never cook or mix infant formula using hot water from the tap.
- Make it a practice to run the water at each tap before use.
- Do not consume water that has sat in your home’s plumbing for more than six hours. First, make sure to run the water until you feel the temperature change before cooking, drinking, or brushing your teeth, unless otherwise instructed by your utility.
- If you use a filter, be sure you get one that is certified to remove lead by the NSF International.
More Tips for Reducing Your Child’s Lead Exposure
We’ve covered how to minimize your exposure to lead in your drinking water, but what about the other sources of exposure?
First off, lead-based paint is still a significant route of exposure, so make sure young children do not have access to peeling paint or painted surfaces that can be chewed, particularly if the home was built prior to 1978. Children and pregnant women should not be involved in any renovations on older homes, as the disturbed paint is likely to contain elevated lead levels in household dust. Other important tips to reduce your child’s lead exposure include:
Avoid letting children play in soil near industrial areas or busy roadways Wash your child’s hands regularly, including after playing outdoors Regularly wet mop and wet-wipe your floors and other home surfaces to remove household dust Pay attention to recalls for lead-contaminated toys or jewelry Make sure any ceramic or porcelain pottery you use in your home has lead-free glaze Avoid letting your children play with (or wear) conventional cosmetics, many of which contain lead
Removing the sources of exposure is the most important part of protecting your children from lead. If you know exposure has occurred, seek a knowledgeable natural health care practitioner who can guide you through a safe and effective detoxification program.
Chlorella, for instance, is a single-celled fresh water algae that is a naturally potent detox agent that may be useful for removing lead and other heavy metals from your body.