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Lead poisoning still deadly threat
Health advice
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According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, lead poisoning is an environmental health concern. It is present in an estimated 24 million U.S. homes where 4.4 million children younger than 6 years old live. Toxic to many tissues and enzymes of the human body, lead can enter your body when you breathe, drink or eat anything that contains lead. With the exception of certain organic lead compounds (such as tetraethyl lead, which previously was added to produce leaded gasoline), lead is not absorbed through your skin. It accumulates in the bone marrow, nerve tissue — including the brain — and kidneys, although some is excreted as waste.
Children are particularly susceptible to lead poisoning because it can accumulate in their developing nervous systems. Although death by lead poisoning is uncommon, dangerous levels of lead in children may cause serious health problems, including lowered intelligence and poor school performance. Nearly 1 million children living in the United States have levels of lead in their bodies high enough to cause irreversible damage, according to the CDC.
Lead poisoning may be hard to detect in children because they may appear healthy even when they have a lot of lead in their bodies. The accumulation of lead in the body usually is gradual. Lead poisoning may also be overlooked because signs and symptoms often are attributed to other illnesses. Symptoms of lead poisoning in children include:
• Irritability
• Loss of appetite
• Weight loss
• Sluggishness
• Abdominal pain
• Vomiting
• Constipation
• Anemia
Although children are primarily at risk, lead poisoning is possible in adults. In adults, lead can increase blood pressure and can cause digestive problems, kidney damage, nerve disorders, sleep problems, muscle and joint pain and mood changes. The signs and symptoms of lead poisoning in adults may include:
• Pain, numbness or tingling of the extremities
• Muscular weakness
• Headache
• Abdominal pain
• Memory loss
Lead poisoning is most common in preschool-age children and fetuses. They are vulnerable to lead exposure because of the following factors:
• The developing nervous system of a fetus has increased susceptibility to the toxic effects of lead.
• Young children are more likely to play in dirt and to place their hands and other objects in their mouths, thereby increasing the opportunity for soil ingestion.
• The efficiency of lead absorption from the gastrointestinal tract is greater in children than in adults.
• Nutritional deficiencies of iron or calcium, which are prevalent in children, may facilitate lead absorption and exacerbate its toxic effects.
Health problems in children caused by exposure to low levels of lead may include:
• Nervous system and kidney damage
• Learning disabilities
• Speech, language and behavior problems
• Poor muscle coordination
• Decreased muscle and bone growth
• Hearing damage
Exposure to lead can be diagnosed by a simple blood test, which measures the level of lead in the blood (micrograms per deciliter). 10 micrograms of lead per deciliter has been set by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as the level of concern, and the CDC recommends testing children at their 1-year checkup or at 6 months if the child is at risk of high-dose exposure.
In the United States, the amount of lead used in gasoline has declined by 99.8 percent from 1976 to 1990, and the percentage of food and soft-drink cans manufactured in the United States that contain lead solder declined from 47 percent in 1980 to 0.9 percent in 1990. These two changes have resulted in a reduction of lead in the typical U.S. diet. In addition, reduced lead in gasoline has reduced the lead content of dust in and around homes.
Things you can do to help eliminate lead poisoning in your home and immediate environment include:
• Change out of work clothes and take a shower before coming home if you work with lead at your job. Lead dust brought home on the clothes of workers can spread in the house and poison children. Lead is used in many workplaces such as radiator repair shops, battery manufacturing plants and lead smelters.
• Do not try to remove the lead from your home yourself if your home has lead paint. Improper removal can make the situation worse so hire a qualified contractor to do the work. In some states, landlords may be required by law to remove lead-based paint from homes where children have been poisoned. Check with local health officials. To locate trained lead service providers, including lead-based paint inspectors, risk assessors and abatement (lead removal) contractors in your area, call 888-LEAD-LIST.
• Never sand, burn or scrape paint unless you know it does not contain lead. If you live in an older home, water from each faucet should be tested as lead can come from the solder or plumbing fixtures. Call the EPA safe drinking water hotline at 800-426-4791 for information on laboratories certified to test for lead.
• Do not use older, imported or handmade dishes for serving, preparing or storing food or drink unless you know that they do not contain lead.
• Avoid hobbies that use lead, including soldering or making stained glass, bullets or fishing sinkers.
• Make sure everyone washes their hands before meals, naptime and bedtime.
• If your child’s bottle or pacifier falls on the floor, wash it before giving it back to your child.
• Wash toys, stuffed animals and bedding regularly.
• If you are pregnant, take as much care to avoid exposing yourself to lead as you would for your child. Lead can pass through your body to your unborn baby and cause health problems.
• Prevent your children from eating sand, dirt or paint chips. Plant grass in areas where children play and encourage them to play in these grassy areas of the yard. Have children remove and wipe their shoes and wash their hands whenever they come inside after playing outdoors.
• Try to make sure your children eat a balanced diet with plenty of foods that contain iron and calcium. A child who gets enough of these minerals will absorb less lead. Foods rich in iron include eggs, lean red meat, beans, peas and other legumes. Dairy products such as milk, cheese and yogurt are also recommended for their high-calcium content.
• Do not store food or drink in containers made from crystal because some crystal contains lead.

Ratcliffe is a consultant to the Coastal Health District. You can call her at 876-6399.
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