The worries about lead exposure


• For more information about lead visit The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention at

If you are like most of the people I know, the recent recall of more than 70 Fisher Price toys by mega-manufacturer Mattel has left you with emotions ranging from worried and scared for your child, to disappointed and angry with the quality control in the factories that produced the poisoned items.

It’s true that lead is a toxin capable of robbing young children of their full intellectual potential, but it is also true that as of the time of the recall not a single child was known to have been adversely affected by the tainted toys. While the likelihood of a child being poisoned in their play chest is low, dangerous lead can come from other common places. Here is what every parent needs to know about lead exposure.

The dangers of lead have been known for decades, but as medical knowledge has grown, lead levels once considered acceptable are now considered toxic. Today many doctors are suggesting that no amount of lead is safe and that children can suffer from very minimal blood levels. Every year in Illinois about 25,000 children are found to have elevated blood lead levels.

Before the 1980s lead was found in paint, plumbing, pottery and cans. Lead-based paint was banned in the United States in 1978, but even today the most common place where children come in contact with high amounts of lead is in old homes. About 75 percent of homes built before 1978 contain some lead-based paint.

If lead-based paint is on the walls or the woodwork and is not chipping, a child’s exposure risk is very minimal. But as paint ages, it begins to chip and turn to chalk. Some young children pick up those chips and eat them. When homes with lead-based paint are being renovated or when paint is stripped using a heat gun, the dust contains lead, which floats in the air where children can inhale it and it settles around the home. Lead from paint dust can also settle outside on the soil.

After lead enters the body it is carried by the blood stream to vital organs, most importantly, the brain. Lead is especially dangerous to children between the ages of 1 and 5 because the brain is undergoing significant growth. Lead exposure can cause lower IQ and difficulty with memory, attention, concentration, language or communication.

Lead intoxication is almost never a single event. In rare cases, a child may swallow a battery or other item containing large amounts of lead, causing sudden toxicity. For most, lead comes from steady ingestion of paint chips or from chewing on a particular toy over a prolonged period. How long the exposure occurs before the blood levels rise depends on the amount of lead ingested at each exposure. It is safe to say that a child who simply picks up and plays with a toy painted with lead-based paint would be at extremely low risk for lead intoxication.

Lead intoxication is silent and at low levels has no symptoms. Unfortunately, even low blood levels of lead may be sufficient to injure a child’s brain permanently. In almost all cases lead intoxication is discovered through a simple blood test.

Not every child will be tested. There are certain populations at very low risk and so routine testing is not recommended. For example, children in newer homes are so unlikely to have exposure that testing is only recommended in specific cases. But, to be cautious, if a child has been playing with a leaded toy for about one month or more, let your doctor know so lead testing can be considered. Children of lower socioeconomic means are at highest risk because they often live in substandard homes. So it is recommended that every child insured through Medicaid be tested at age 1 and again at age 2.

To avoid lead exposure in your child:

• Discourage sucking on toys (this may be difficult because hand to mouth behavior is a normal part of development). Remember that Mattel voluntarily recalled poisoned items, but many toys made outside the U.S. are at risk for containing lead so be cautious with all toys. Check the Consumer Product Safety Commission’s Web site at and remove all recalled toys from your home.

• If you live in an older home, avoid the use of heat guns to strip paint from old surfaces. Teach your children to wash their hands frequently, especially before eating. And if you are doing substantial renovation to a home built before 1950 consider a contractor skilled in lead abatement. You can find one by visiting the Illinois Department of Public Health Web site at

The key to lead exposure is prevention. Once children have lead intoxication, their brains are at risk and the damage is irreversible.

Dr. Lisa Thornton, a mother of three, is director of pediatric rehabilitation at Schwab Rehabilitation Hospital and LaRabida Children’s Hospital. She also is assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of Illinois at Chicago. E-mail her at

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