What is lead?

Lead is a heavy metal that exists naturally in the earth but that is not known to be safe in the body at any amount. When ingested, lead travels through the blood stream to the brain, nervous system, kidneys, and other organs.  Lead can then be stored in bones, leading to long-term exposure. Elevated blood lead levels cause permanent damage to the brain, nervous system, and other organs that can result in anti-social behavior, learning disabilities, seizures, dementia, and even death.

Who is the most vulnerable population for elevated blood lead levels?

Children six years old and under suffer the most damage from elevated blood lead levels because of their rapidly developing brains and bodies. Of these children, children three years and under and unborn children are most vulnerable. Infants and toddlers have the highest risk of having elevated blood lead levels, especially when they begin to crawl and become mobile.  All children living in older homes or high-risk communities should be tested at their one and two-year well child visits.

When is a child considered “lead poisoned”?

According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), it takes only a tiny amount of lead to poison a child. There is no safe level of lead in the human body. Children’s rapidly growing bodies absorb more lead than those of adults or older children do, and their developing brains and nervous systems are more sensitive to the damaging effects of lead. The reference value for elevated Blood Lead Levels in Children is 5 µg/dL and anything above this level indicates a child has lead poisoning.

What is the most common source of elevated blood lead levels?

Despite having been banned from house paint in 1978, the most common source of lead in the U.S. is still from lead-based paint. Lead paint chips and lead dust are still found in many old homes and in the soil. Lead from paint is released into the air when painted surfaces undergo friction, such as from scraping or even from opening and closing windows and doors. This friction releases lead dust we can breathe in or that settles onto the surfaces we touch. Young children who play on the floor and put their hands and toys into their mouths can be poisoned this way.leadchip

Lead particles released into the outside air fall to the ground and contaminate soil. Sources of lead-emissions include industrial pollution and the burning of leaded gasoline. Even though leaded gasoline has not been used in highway vehicles in the U.S. since 1991, the lead particles from car-exhaust are still present in the ground. Soil and groundwater can also be contaminated by lead that leaches from the construction debris, car batteries, and other refuse in landfills.

Can lead be found in water?

Yes, unfortunately, lead can be found in drinking water. According to NSF, if you live in an older home, check to see if a lead service line connects your home to the public water system. If you cannot locate the pipe or identify the pipe material, contact the local water department to see if it  can inspect the water line coming into the home or check its records to confirm if the home is connected to the water system by a lead service line. The department would also be able to advise if any city water pipes in your area are known to contain lead.

According to the EPA, the most common problem with lead in plumbing components is “with brass or chrome-plated brass faucets and fixtures with lead solder, from which significant amounts of lead can enter into the water, especially hot water”. The EPA says, “Homes built before 1986 are more likely to have lead pipes, fixtures and solder. The Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) has reduced the maximum allowable lead content — that is, content that is considered “lead-free” — to be a weighted average of 0.25 percent calculated across the wetted surfaces of pipes, pipe fittings, plumbing fittings, and fixtures and 0.2 percent for solder and flux”.

What are common symptoms of elevated blood lead levels? 

You may not be able to tell if your child has elevated blood lead levels because sometimes the symptoms are mistaken for more common illnesses. The only way to know if a child has elevated blood lead level is through a blood test.

According to the National Institutes of Health, symptoms of elevated blood lead levels can include:

  • Abdominal pain and cramping
  • Aggressive behavior
  • Constipation
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Headaches
  • Irritability
  • Loss of previous developmental skills (in young children)
  • Low appetite and energy
  • Reduced sensations

Keep in mind that there are no reliable symptoms of elevated blood lead levels. Waiting for symptoms is dangerous, as visible symptoms come too late —after long-lasting damage to the child. Instead of relying on symptoms, parents should get a blood test for their child at one and two years of age as recommended.

What are the potential health impacts from elevated blood lead levels?

Elevated blood lead levels in children causes life-long brain damage. Even small amounts of lead can have negative effects on children:

  • Brain damage
  • Poor physical growth and development
  • Social problems
  • Behavioral or attention problems
  • Hearing problems
  • Kidney damage
  • Slowed body growth
  • Reduced IQ
  • Problems in school, learning disabilities

What treatment options are available for elevated blood lead levels?

While there is no treatment known to reverse the effects of elevated blood lead levels, parents should ask for affordable, high quality early education for their children as soon as they are identified as having elevated blood lead levels. This type of education can improve cognition and school performance.

Some services parents may want to access are Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC) and Help Me Grow.

For very high lead levels, (45 µg/dL and over) the chief medical treatment is chelation, which binds lead to a substance that can be expelled from the body. While chelation may prevent serious complications such as seizures, it can’t reverse the damage caused by elevated blood lead levels. Because lead  builds up slowly over time and health problems get worse as the level of lead in the blood rises (National Institutes of Health), it is important to reduce the child’s exposure to lead in the home through lead hazard control. Lead hazard control activities may include removing lead dust and peeling paint, window repair or replacement, and addressing conditions causing paint to degrade. All repairs are conducted in a lead safe manner while the household is out of the home. If a child’s lead level is 5 µg/dL or above, lead hazard control activities must be conducted by a state licensed lead contractor.

One of the quickest way to lower a child’s blood lead level is for the family to move out of the lead contaminated home to one that has been made lead safe. While replacing wall paint, lead service lines, and old fixtures may be desirable, it isn’t always possible, especially if you live in a multi-unit building or rent.

leadpipePotential home water treatment options for lead can include filters, reverse osmosis units and distillers. Make sure the system is certified under NSF/ANSI standards for lead reduction, which means that the system has been independently verified to be able to reduce lead from 0.150 mg/L to 0.010 mg/L or less.

If you have a private well and have high lead levels, the problem could be due to low pH. When pH levels drop below 7.0, water becomes acidic which can cause lead to leach from plumbing fixtures. Acid neutralizing systems are generally used to correct this situation. By adding a chemical like soda ash to the water to boost pH above 7.0, the system can help reduce both lead and copper leaching attributable to low pH.

If you do choose to use a water treatment system, remember that most water treatment systems have replaceable components or require regular service, so be sure to follow the manufacturer’s maintenance instructions and replace filters at the recommended interval.


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