Lead poisoning in children – how to protect them

How to protect children from lead poisoning

Lead’s got a lot going for it. It’s soft and malleable, with a low melting temperature, meaning it’s perfect for use in a wide range of applications. The Romans used it to build water pipes, aqueducts and cooking pots, while the Ancient Egyptians just couldn’t get enough of rubbing it on to their eyelids as kohl.

Unfortunately for these ancient civilisation (and some later ones), it wasn’t until the late 19th century that scientists discovered that lead is in fact very toxic to humans. Over time, exposure to this heavy metal can lead to convulsions, coma, and even death, as well as a range of other unpleasant symptoms.

To make things worse, lead is impossible to smell, see or taste, so until symptoms start appearing most people don’t realise it’s there. Plus, even the tiniest amount of lead can cause harm; there’s no safe threshold for exposure.

Nowadays, those most likely to be exposed to lead are adults working in the smelting, refining, alloying and casting industries, as the associated industrial processes can create lead dust and fumes. But it’s always been young children that are most vulnerable to the long-term health problems that lead can cause. And because of humanity’s long love-hate relationship with lead, it’s not impossible for exposure to take place – even within the safety of your own home.

In this article, we’re going to talk you through the risk factors for lead poisoning, and how you can protect your children from this silent menace.

What are the effects of lead poisoning?

The symptoms of long-term lead exposure can be devastating for children. Lead is a potent neurotoxin that builds up in the bones and soft tissues of the body after it’s inhaled, swallowed, or absorbed through the skin.

As children are smaller and still growing, their bodies absorb and retain lead more readily, so it’s easier for lead poisoning to take a hold and cause damage. The symptoms can be more severe than those seen in adults and include:

  • Developmental delay
  • Learning difficulties
  • Irritability
  • Loss of appetite
  • Weight loss
  • Fatigue
  • Abdominal pain
  • Vomiting
  • Constipation
  • Hearing loss
  • Seizures
  • Pica (eating things that aren’t food)

These effects have been observed as long-lasting and possibly permanent. Teenagers exposed to lead as babies are less likely to graduate from high school, and more likely to have problems with attentional dysfunction, aggression, and delinquency. (Source: Pediatrics)

Lead Hazards and Safety

It’s imperative that parents assess the risk levels for their own children, and take appropriate precautions. In this section, we’ll talk you through the main hazards and how you can defend your child from the risks of exposure.

Lead in the Home: Paint, soil and dust

Lead was added to paint because its various compounds resulted in different pigments and colours. For instance, lead carbonate (more commonly known as white lead) makes white and cream paint, whilst adding lead tetroxide produces a bright red. On top of that, lead makes paint dry more quickly and last longer. It’s also washable, as lead improves paint’s moisture resistance. These properties made it ideal for decorating homes, and lead paint was widely used in houses from the 19th century onwards.

This put young children at a whole lot of risk. From the late 1800s, there were reports of children suffering neurological damage and other symptoms we now know to be linked to lead poisoning. Children were so susceptible because lead paint has a sweet taste, and some would eat or lick the paint off the walls. And to make matters worse, it was commonplace for lead paint to be used on toys and cribs!

Over the years, more and more countries have passed laws banning lead interior paints, with France, Belgium, and Austria striking the first blow in 1922. The USA followed suit in 1978, whilst the UK fell in line with an EU ban in 1992.

The relatively recent ban of lead paint means the danger to children hasn’t disappeared. More than 4% of US children have lead poisoning (source: Family Doctor) and this is because old houses built before the 1978 ban sometimes still have lead-based paint on the wall. By chewing on peeled paint chips, kids can still get lead poisoning in the same way as their Victorian counterparts. Old paint can also degrade and release dust into the environment, which can cause high levels of lead if it’s breathed in or swallowed off the hands.

Paint dust can also contaminate soil. This same soil is also where the airborne lead from old gasoline eventually settled. The high concentration in dust and soil can be hazardous for kids playing outdoors.

If your home was built before lead paint was regulated in your area, it’s worth taking precautions. In the UK, this means houses built before the 1960s, whilst in the USA it’s homes that predate the 1978 ban. If paint is flaking, it’s essential that the risk is evaluated by professionals.

Here are some things you can do to minimise the risk from lead paint, dust and soil:

  • Monitor children carefully and keep them away from any peeling lead paint.
  • Get your children’s blood tested by a doctor to keep an eye on lead levels.
  • If lead paint is still in a good condition, seal it in with an overcoat of modern paint.
  • If it’s in bad condition, remove it in a way that doesn’t stimulate dust and fumes. A solvent or liquid stripper is a good solution.
  • Take care during renovations to not disturb lead paint with drills, nails, and other tools. Seal off any work areas with dust sheets, and if possible keep your children out of the house when work is ongoing.
  • Use mops and wet wipes to clean lead dust from floors and surfaces. Avoid vacuum cleaners and abrasive cleaners so you don’t disturb the paint.
  • Clean children’s toys regularly.
  • If soil is contaminated, keep your children away from the area and make sure they’re washing their hands frequently. If possible, add a separate play area like a sandbox to keep your children away from the soil.
  • Shoes should be taken off indoors to prevent lead-contaminated dirt from entering the home.
  • If you’re buying or renting a new home, enquire about lead paint before committing.

Lead in the water supply

Lead’s been used in our plumbing for hundreds of years, and it’s contaminated drinking water for the same amount of time. Even the Romans were at it!

In the UK, many small water pipes were manufactured using lead in times gone by. This practice was banned in 1970, but older homes can still be served by these pipes. If water isn’t run for a while, the standing water in these pipes can be contaminated by lead. This is a bigger concern if you live in an area with soft water. Hard water causes a scale to form on the insides of pipes, which conveniently stops lead dissolving into drinking water.

Lead levels in water are closely monitored, but it’s not impossible for higher levels to be seen in household water. Here are some easy ways to protect your children:

  • Ask your water supplier to test your house’s water for lead – samples are taken regularly, and the results should be provided free of charge in the UK.
  • If lead is detected and water hasn’t been used in a while, run your taps on cold for 1-2 minutes and showers for 5 minutes. This will flush any contaminated standing water out of the system. Afterwards the tap can be used normally.
  • Use cold water, not hot, for cleaning and cooking. Warm and hot water contain much higher levels of lead. Boiling water does not reduce lead content.
  • Give your children bottled or filtered water.

Lead from other sources

High levels of lead have been also been identified in a number of other sources. Take care with the following:

  1. Traditional medicines: Traditional medicines imported from the Middle East, Southeast Asia, India, the Dominican Republic and Mexico can contain lead. Two such medicines are Greta and Azarcon, both of which are folk remedies used to treat an upset stomach. The only way to tell if they contain lead is a lab test, so don’t give these to your children.
  2. Children’s jewellery and toys: Metal jewellery and toys from vending machines can contain lead. Although wearing lead jewellery will not drastically increase lead levels in the blood, the risk is higher for children as they’ll often put small items in their mouth. This was brought to tragic light in 2006 when a child died from acute lead poisoning after swallowing a small metal charm off a bracelet.
  3. Parents’ workplace: Parents who encounter lead at work may accidentally bring it home on their clothes, hair and skin, and this lead can then be passed on to your kids. High risk jobs include welding and cutting, plumbing, construction, lead smelting and refining, foundry work, and demolition. If this is the case, work clothes should not be worn at home and should be kept separate from personal clothes, and the clothes of your children. They should also be washed separately.
  4. Some imported foods: Sweets from Mexico containing chilli and tamarind were recently found to be a source of lead. Take care when traveling in this area and don’t let your children eat candy imported from Mexico.

About the author

Andrew Patterson is the managing director of Paint Inspection Ltd, a UK-based company that provide paint inspection, paint sample testing, and coating condition surveys for businesses in the rail, highways, marine, oil and gas, renewable energy, and local authority sectors.