Lead Exposure Risks and How to Prevent Them

Some health risks aren’t as physically obvious as others, which can make it more challenging to know when you might be exposed to them. Lead poisoning, for example, is a serious health concern – particularly for children – but we might not always know where to look for it. Below, Jacqueline M. Korpics, MD, Advanced General Pediatrics & Primary Care Attending Physician and Director of the Lead Exposure Clinic at Lurie Children’s, provides must-know information on identifying potential lead poisoning risks, why it’s dangerous, and what to do if a child is exposed.

Understanding Lead and Where It’s Found

Lead is a metal that used to be used widely for many purposes until it was found to be toxic. In the recent past, it was used in paint in homes, and in Chicago, this continues to be the main source of lead poisoning we see in children living in older homes (built before 1978). This is especially a problem if the paint is not in good shape.

Lead can also be found in water, consumer packaged goods - which we've seen recently in the recall of several food products due to high lead levels - and in foreign products such as spices, pottery, makeup, and homeopathic medications.

Read more about all of the potential lead sources at cdc.gov.  

Symptoms and Risks of Lead Poisoning

What are the symptoms of lead poisoning in children?

Lead poisoning happens when too much lead enters the body through breathing, eating, drinking or skin contact. Most of the time, children do not have any symptoms. Thus, it is necessary to test for lead in the blood. Sometimes if the lead level is very high, kids can have symptoms like stomachaches, vomiting, irritability, or headaches.

Are there long-term effects of lead exposure?

Yes, unfortunately, even low levels of lead have been associated with neurologic effects like cognitive impairment, developmental delay, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and poor school performance. Lead exposure has also been associated with high blood pressure and cardiovascular disease, kidney disease, and reproductive problems.

What amount of lead becomes dangerous?

Any level of lead is dangerous and associated with negative health effects, and extremely high lead levels can be fatal. Fortunately, due to many policy changes and advocacy to eliminate lead from our environment, death from acute lead poisoning has become very rare. However, we still see negative health effects from lead in children.

Children are at higher risk as their brains are still developing, their bodies absorb lead more easily, and they have developmentally normal hand-to-mouth behaviors.

How to Prevent Lead Poisoning

  • Make sure to keep your home clean and free from dust.
  • Repair any areas of the home with chipping paint.
  • Make sure to wash your child’s hands frequently and have everyone take their shoes off before entering your home.
  • If you are doing any renovations or construction in an older home, be sure to use contractors who are certified to do this safely and to block off these areas from your children.
  • Chicago water currently meets all standards set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA), the Illinois EPA, and the drinking water industry, but if you live in Chicago, you can call 3-1-1 or visit www.chicagowaterquality.org to request a free water lead test kit to be sure your water is free of lead.
    • Even though Chicago water meets all standards, Chicago still has lead service lines for many residences. The City of Chicago is committed to lead service line removal in a responsible, sustainable and equitable manner. Visit Lead-Safe Chicago for more information.
    • It’s important to know that you cannot see, taste or smell lead in drinking water. If you have concerns about the water in your home, have it tested and consider the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance on how to help ensure that the water you use for cooking and drinking has a low lead concentration.

Treatment for Lead Poisoning

The most important intervention is to eliminate the source of lead. This is often done in partnership with local health departments, including the Chicago Department of Public Health (CDPH). 

We also encourage good nutrition, especially regarding iron and calcium, to reduce the amount of lead absorbed by the body. If lead levels are very high, we sometimes use medications to reduce the lead in the blood. Developmental therapies also encourage a stimulating and nurturing environment in the home (such as reading, playing, and singing with your child) to mitigate the negative effects of lead on health.

If you think your child has been exposed to lead, talk to your pediatrician or child’s healthcare provider right away, as they can order a blood test to test for it. If elevated, they can walk you through the right steps to make sure their blood level goes back to undetectable.

Learn more about lead evaluation and treatment at Lurie Children’s.

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