baby at doctor The recent closing of a playground in Philadelphia because of high levels of lead in the soil and a state report detailing lead risks to children in all of Pennsylvania’s 67 counties remind us that lead poisoning is an enduring health problem. Kevin Osterhoudt, MD, Medical Director of the Poison Control Center at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP), hopes the news serves as a wake-up call to parents about the dangers of lead poisoning in our homes, schools and neighborhoods.

'Lead is a burglar'

Lead is a silent and often invisible menace. By the time parents discover that a child has lead poisoning – through a blood test – it has often slowed brain development for months or even years, sometimes starting before birth.

“Lead is a burglar,” says Dr. Osterhoudt. “It robs our children of their full potential.”

Children in the Greater Philadelphia Metro area are especially vulnerable because:

  • Lead was regularly used in house paint until it was banned in 1978 — often in high concentrations in paint made before 1950. Since a large proportion of the homes and schools in the eastern U.S. were built before the ban, lead paint lurks in our walls, on our windowsills and in the soil where paint scrapings and chips have fallen.
  • Older homes may have problems with lead in the water, leached from lead pipes, which were in common use before World War II, or from lead solder, which was not banned for use in pipes carrying drinking water until 1986.
  • Lead in the soil is a toxic legacy of our industrial past. In places where manufacturing once emitted lead particles into the air or spilled it on the ground, elevated lead levels in the soil can endure as an invisible hazard.

“On the one hand, the banning of lead paint and later of leaded gasoline is one of the great environmental success stories of our lifetime,” says Dr. Osterhoudt. “On average, children today have much lower levels of lead in their blood and their bodies than kids did 40 years ago. But in that same period, we’ve learned that even low levels of lead can damage children’s developing brains.”

CHOP and other area hospitals continue to see and treat children with lead levels 15 to 25 times what is considered the upper level of normal.

What you can do

What can you do if you live in an older home or are concerned about lead in your child’s environment? Dr. Osterhoudt offers these suggestions:

Test for and avoid lead exposure

Because lead poisoning can begin before a child is born, when you are planning to have children, consider the lead hazards where you live.

  • Choose a place to live without lead risks, if at all possible. Hire a certified lead inspector to check your home. If you live in a home with lead paint, consult with an expert about how to safely remove or contain it. It’s critical that pregnant women and children avoid exposure to lead dust during renovation.
  • Have your child tested. Lead levels can be measured in a simple blood test, which can be done as part of a draw for other tests. Ask your pediatrician about testing the lead level in your child’s blood.

If your child has elevated lead levels, eliminate further exposure

If your child’s blood test shows higher-than-normal lead levels, Dr. Osterhoudt’s advice is simple and urgent:

  • Eliminate further exposure to lead. “Figure out where the lead exposure is coming from, and make changes to end it,” he says. “Your child’s life and future depend on it.”

If you can’t eliminate the exposure — by moving, for example, or through a safe renovation without being present in the home — practice vigilant hygiene to reduce exposure to safer levels:

  • Get rid of lead dust that builds up in the home. Use a wet mop on the floor and a wet towel or sponge on windowsills, radiators, stairwells and other painted surfaces.
  • Wash your child’s hands before meals, naps and bedtime. Children get lead poisoning when they put lead-dusted hands in their mouths.
  • Wash your child’s toys regularly with soapy water. Anything children put in their mouths must be free of lead dust.
  • Vacuum when your child is out of the home. Check to make sure the bag is not over-full before vacuuming. Consider buying a HEPA-filter vacuum cleaner, which spreads less dust into the air.
  • If you live in a very old home, where lead has been used in water pipes, run the water for at least three minutes every morning before using water for drinking or cooking. Use only cold water for cooking. For added protection: Consider using a water filter certified for lead removal.

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