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Lead Exposure and Screening: The Basics

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University Hospitals Rainbow Babies & Children'sExperts in Children's Health
A pile of lead-based paint chips

Even at very low levels, lead exposure can have big effects on a child’s IQ, nervous system and overall health. It’s also been linked to the development of ADHD and other behavioral problems.

To help your children stay as healthy as possible, it’s important to keep them away from lead. Pediatrician Dieter Sumerauer, MD, and Regional Medical Director, Rainbow Primary Care Institute, explains more.

How Are Children Exposed to Lead?

“You can’t see or smell lead, which makes it tricky to detect in the places where your child spends time,” says Dr. Sumerauer. Instead, he advises that it’s important to be aware of common lead sources and whether your child may have been exposed.

One of the main sources of lead poisoning in children is dust from the lead-based paint used in many homes built prior to 1978. It isn’t just the chipping and peeling paint that can make their way into children’s bodies. It’s also the dust of the deteriorating paint that accumulates in windows and floors.

Other potential sources of lead include:

  • Drinking water that runs through lead pipes.
  • Dust from soil contaminated by mining or leaded gasoline.
  • Toys and jewelry containing lead.
  • Imported spices and seasonings that might be tainted with lead dust.
  • Dust and residue from activities like pottery making and battery recycling.

How Can I Prevent Lead Exposure?

There are steps you can take to limit your child’s exposure to lead, including:

  • Find out how old your home is. If it was built before 1978, ask a licensed lead inspector to complete an inspection. Be sure to do this before removing paint or starting repairs or renovations.
  • Clean your home regularly. Wipe floors, window frames and play areas with wet paper towels to remove dust. Wash toys with soap and water.
  • Feed your child healthy foods. Some foods can interfere with the absorption of lead. These include foods high in calcium (yogurt, milk, spinach), iron (beans, peanut butter, lean red meats), and vitamin C (oranges, green and red peppers).
  • Teach kids to wash their hands often with soap and water. Key times include before eating and sleeping.

Should My Child Be Screened for Lead Exposure?

“Lead exposure may not cause any immediately obvious symptoms,” says Dr. Sumerauer. “But if you have questions or any concerns at all, you should talk with your child’s pediatrician. It’s better to test than not to know, and a finger poke with a few drops of blood is all that it takes.”

Lead screening tests measure the lead level in a small amount of blood taken from a finger, heel or arm. The tests are covered by many private health insurance policies, as well as Medicaid. Children enrolled in Medicaid, or who live in a high risk zip code, must be screened at ages 12 and 24 months.

If your child’s results are positive for lead, their pediatrician will guide you on next steps. This may include additional tests, treatment and removal of lead from your child’s environment. They can also connect you with resources, such as supplemental nutrition programs and professionals who inspect homes for potential lead sources.

Related Links

University Hospitals Rainbow Babies & Children’s has a wide network of highly skilled pediatricians at convenient locations across the region. Our specialists have the advanced training and experience to care for children of all ages and provide parents with the support and encouragement they need.

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