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Do You Know the Common Sources of Lead Exposure Today?

Published in Family Medicine, Pediatrics, For the Health of It Author: Jessica Najarian-Bell,MD

Young children under the age of six, especially those younger than three years old, are the most susceptible to the toxic effects of lead exposure. This age group hasn’t fully developed their blood-brain barrier so it’s easier for lead to enter their nervous system. That’s why parents and caregivers need to know how to prevent lead exposure.

Lead is a metallic element that was first used around 4000 BC. It became a popular ingredient in household paint throughout the United States until it was banned from that practice in 1978. However, that doesn’t mean we’re in the clear.

Common sources of lead today include:

  • Paint chips from lead-painted surfaces and homes and buildings built before 1978.

  • Food or beverages sold in lead-soldered cans, cups or lead-glazed pottery. Caution should be taken when using cups that use lead in any capacity — even to vacuum seal the base.

  • Water that is supplied through pipes or plumbing that holds lead.

  • Soil contaminated with lead from exterior lead-based paint.

  • Certain products such as toys and jewelry and some imported foods and medicines.

  • Caregivers exposed to lead may bring it back home on clothing and shoes.

Unfortunately, lead is silent and invisible. There are no safe levels of lead exposure, but dangerous levels can build up over time. Little by little, lead can collect in the blood, brain and bones affecting a child’s language development and cognitive abilities.

Lead poisoning over time can look like:

  • Learning problems

  • Slow growth

  • Hearing difficulties

  • Anemia

  • Fatigue

  • Loss of appetite

The good news is lead exposure is preventable. There are several ways to protect yourself and your family:

  • Have young children evaluated for lead at the recommended times — typically at ages 1 and 2. Children are evaluated more often if exposure concerns exist or if elevated lead levels are found in the blood.

  • Pregnant mothers should also get tested if they have any concerns about lead exposure in their environment.

  • Always wash your hands before eating and sleeping.

  • Don’t wear outside shoes inside your home.

  • Make sure your child is eating healthy foods with good amounts of iron and calcium. Both are minerals that may decrease lead absorption in the body.

  • In older homes that may have lead in pipes, run water for at least three minutes in the morning before using.

  • In older homes that may have lead paint, use a wet mop on the floor and a wet towel on the windowsills.

The only way to find lead in your system is through a blood lead level test (BLL). A health care provider will typically start by drawing blood through a finger prick called a capillary blood test. Sometimes, if lead is present on a person’s skin, this test can show a false result. If the test needs to be repeated, blood will instead be drawn from a vein, called venous draw, which gives more exact results.

If you’re worried about lead exposure, contact your primary care provider. If you have questions or concerns about lead in your environment, reach out to the Minnesota Department of Health.