Lead is present in soil, food sources, and water sources. It can also be found in ceramic dishes, antique toys, skin care products, and paint in homes built before 1978. Most of the lead that enters the body comes from eating or breathing it. There is no known safe blood level of lead. Therefore, it is important to know about the sources of lead, recent advances in reducing lead exposure, and recommendations on how to avoid lead poisoning, especially in children.
The good news is that safety standards in place over the past few decades have significantly reduced people’s exposure to lead. For example, you can no longer buy paint products containing lead, and lead has been removed from gasoline. Testing for lead has become more common and accurate. Water can be measured in parts per trillion.
Lead poisoning is caused by having too much lead stored in the body. It can cause learning, behavior, and health problems in children. Children under the age of 6 are most at risk of lead poisoning, especially if they spend time in a home built before 1978. Prior to that, the use of lead in household paints was permitted. Children can be exposed to lead in homes that are being renovated or have chipped or peeling paint. Lead can also be found in the soil around houses and buildings where children play.
If you are concerned about lead exposure, your child can have a blood test to check their lead levels. Toys should not contain lead, but some toys put children at risk of exposure to lead. Antique toys and collectibles may have lead paint. Do not give your child toys with peeling or chipped paint.
If you are pregnant, exposure to lead can pass to your fetus through the placenta. Maintaining adequate iron levels and being tested for anemia during prenatal care can reduce this exposure. Prenatal vitamins include iron supplements. Additionally, pregnant or breastfeeding women should stay away from renovations to homes built before 1978. Paint dust and particles destroyed during construction can pose a lead exposure hazard. Pipes in your home can also be a source of lead exposure.
Adults absorb only about 1% of lead in food and water. However, for babies and children, the absorption rate is about 50% of lead in water and food. Breastfeeding reduces your baby’s exposure to toxic metals, including lead. Some baby foods contain high levels of heavy metals such as lead, so parents should consider giving their babies a variety of foods to reduce lead exposure. Babies and adults are now exposed to less lead than they were 30 years ago. Lead is being measured more accurately and food and environmental standards continue to increase. Talk to your health care team if you have concerns about lead exposure.
Dennis Costakos, MD, is a neonatologist in La Crosse, Wisconsin.