In this video adapted from Lead Awareness for Parents by the Coalition to Prevent Lead Poisoning, two mothers share their experiences about how their children suffered from lead poisoning. First, meet the Sanfilippo family who discovered their young son chewing on wood from their porch while they renovated it, and then found that there was lead paint present. Also meet the Travis family, whose children likely got lead poisoning from lead hazards in their rental homes. Hear about the importance of regular testing for blood lead levels, and learn how to prevent lead exposure.
This media asset was adapted from Lead Awareness for Parents.
Lead poisoning, or high levels of lead in the body, can occur when people are exposed to lead in their environment. Lead is an element that was once used in many products (such as gasoline, ceramics, cosmetics, and paint) but is now known to have serious health effects, and so its use is restricted. However, lead-based paint is still present in many older homes and is a common source of lead poisoning. In particular, deteriorating lead paint and lead dust (produced, for example, by opening and closing windows that are painted with lead paint) place children at risk for childhood lead poisoning.
Lead typically enters the body through inhalation or ingestion. Young children are especially at risk because they spend a lot of time playing on the ground and they tend to explore the world with their mouths—they often place their hands and toys (which may have lead dust or contaminated soil on them) into their mouths, and they may chew on railings or windowsills and eat paint chips. Lead dust that is inhaled is absorbed into the blood stream through the lungs; lead that is ingested is absorbed into the blood stream as it travels through the digestive tract. Once in the body, lead is stored in blood, soft tissues, and bone.
The rate of lead absorption is affected by factors such as diet and age. Dietary deficiencies of calcium, iron, and zinc can increase absorption rates, while consuming green, leafy vegetables can help the body eliminate lead. In addition, pregnant women and young children have higher rates of lead absorption than typical adults. Infants and young children under six, then, are not only more likely to have high exposure to lead because of their behaviors, they also absorb lead into their bodies more easily than adults do. Furthermore, once in the body, lead causes more harm to children than to adults because their systems are not fully developed and they are rapidly growing.
Symptoms of lead poisoning in children include loss of appetite, irritability, fatigue, vomiting, and learning difficulties. Elevated lead levels can cause illness, affect development, and possibly be fatal. For example, lead exposure can cause anemia, slowed muscle and bone growth, kidney damage, learning disabilities, and behavioral problems. Treatment for lead poisoning starts by removing the source of contamination. For high levels of lead, chelation therapy may be used—a drug is administered to bind with the lead in the body, which is then excreted in urine. However, prevention is the best strategy to combat lead poisoning.
In the United States, hundreds of thousands of children under the age of six have blood lead levels higher than 10 micrograms of lead per deciliter of blood, which has been set as the threshold for lead poisoning. However, lead can have harmful health effects at even lower levels. Children should be protected from lead by minimizing contact with lead hazards. Parents can reduce exposure by identifying and controlling paint hazards in the home, as well as by taking simple steps such as washing children's hands often and keeping surfaces clean.
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