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Does my child have lead poisoning?

National Lead Poisoning Prevention Week, October 20-26, 2019

Although the prevalence of high blood lead levels in children has dropped over the last four decades, the problem still exists. There are approximately a half a million 1- to 5-year-olds with lead levels at or above the toxic threshold. This accounts for millions of lost IQ points and one in five cases of ADHD.

The long-term effects of lead in a child can be severe. They include learning disabilities, decreased growth, hyperactivity, impaired hearing, and even brain, liver and kidney damage. If caught early, these effects can be limited by reducing exposure to lead and/or by medical treatment. There are no effective treatments for the permanent cognitive effects of lead toxicity. 

No blood lead level is considered safe. The risk for lead exposure is greatest in the first two years of life when children put everything in their mouths. The only way to know if a child has been exposed to lead is through a blood test. It is recommended that all children be tested at age 1 and again at age 2. Annual testing should be considered until age 6, especially for children with lead exposure.

Most children with lead poisoning do not show outward symptoms unless blood-lead levels become extremely high. Symptoms can include headaches, stomachaches, nausea, tiredness and irritability—similar to symptoms of flu or viruses.

Common sources for high lead levels in children in the Lake Cumberland region were found to be lead dust from chipping old lead based paints, soil surrounding homes with lead based paint, caregivers who worked in battery plants or had hobbies which used lead products. Some of these hobbies could include making ammunition, stained glass, making fishing sinkers, or repurposing old furniture or picture frames.

Children do not have to help with these hobbies to be exposed to the lead dusts. Other sources may include contaminated water, industrial emissions, costume jewelry, toys, folk remedies, cosmetics and various consumer products that slip through the regulatory cracks. Lead can also be found in vinyl mini-blinds, leaded crystal, dishware and pottery coatings.

Preventing exposure is a vital key. Lead poisoning is preventable with proper housekeeping and personal care. This includes good hand washing, changing contaminated clothing before playing with children, and washing contaminated clothing separately. If exposed to lead, a healthy diet which includes iron, vitamin C and calcium-rich foods hinders absorption of lead.

If you live in a house built before 1978 or work with lead products, including stained glass windows or batteries, have your child tested for lead by your health care provider.

Learn more at https://www.epa.gov/lead. The Kentucky Department for Public Health may also be emailed with questions at KYChildhoodLeadPoisoning@ky.gov.

By Dr. Christine Weyman, Medical Director, Lake Cumberland District Health Department

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