In the wake of several product recalls linked to possible lead poisoning, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have updated their web page on lead poisoning and young children to remind parents and the public of all the various routes by which lead enters the bloodstream of children in the United States today.

It’s one of the most natural things a young child does, to place objects in its mouth. Touching and tasting is how infants learn. However, the combination of a developing brain, young body and this tendency to put things in their mouths is what puts young children at risk of lead poisoning. Not just directly from touching objects like toys that could be covered with lead based paint, but because the lead is present in tiny dust particles that get onto toys, in the soil, and on other interesting objects in the child’s every day environment.

Lead is dangerous for young children at lower levels than it is for adults because it affects the developing brain and their bodies absorb it more easily, especially in the gut. Lead poisoning in young children can lead to lower IQ, learning disabilities and behavioural problems.

While emphasizing there is no safe threshold for blood lead levels (BLL) in young children, the CDC estimates that around 310,000 young children under the age of 5 in the United States have over 10 micrograms per decilitre of lead in their blood. This is the threshold (set in the 1990s) above which the CDC recommends action should be taken, but many experts say recent evidence suggests the limit should be significantly lower, at 7.5 or even 5 micrograms/dL.

Children rarely get lead poisoning from ingesting a large amount of lead in one go. They are more likely to build up lead in their bodies over time, after months and years of picking up and chewing toys and breathing in dust. Symptoms build up gradually, they don’t stand out suddenly like an infection or a fever might.

Symptoms of lead poisoning include: feeling lethargic, low energy, sleeping longer than normal, loss of appetite, pains in the stomach and abdominal area, slowing down of learning and reflexes, hyperactivity, loss of weight, vomiting, constipation and diarrhea.

Every day wear and tear causes particles from house items coated with paint that contains lead, such as doors and windowsills, to become part of the dust and soil around the home. Another common way lead enters the environment is when houses are knocked down or refurbished or when surfaces are sanded down for repainting.

Other sources, which could account for up to 30 per cent of the lead ingested by children in some parts of the US include: drinking water that has passed through lead pipes, solder and brass fittings such as valves; consumer products such as tea kettles and vinyl blinds; home remedies for stomach upsets such as azarcon and greta, favourites of the Hispanic community; and a vast range of imported goods such as toys, candy, jewellery, cosmetics, ceramics and pottery.

Adults are also exposed to lead through their jobs and hobbies and may inadvertently bring it into children’s every day environment on their clothes, skin and hair, as well as on objects or scrap material they carry into the home. It can even get into their children’s and other family members’ clothes when their work or hobby clothes are washed with the family’s laundry.

The CDC advises parents to ask a doctor to test their child if they are concerned about them being exposed to lead.

They also advise the public and parents to reduce blood lead levels by:

  • Talking to their local health department about having their home tested for lead. This is particularly advisable for people living in houses or apartments built before 1978 when the building regulations on lead were tightened up.
  • Damp mopping floors, and wiping surfaces with a damp cloth on a regular basis.
  • Washing children’s hands frequently, washing toys and pacifiers.
  • Not using hot tap water for drinking, cooking or preparing baby formula. Hot water leaches lead more readily from pipes.
  • Not using home remedies and cosmetics that contain lead (an example of the latter is kohl, used as eyeliner).
  • Showering and changing straight after work or hobbies that involve possible lead exposure (such remodelling old properties, working with lead based products).

The most recent voluntary toy recalls announced this month in the US by the US Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) involving possible lead contamination are:

  • Sesame Street, Dora the Explorer and several other toys: on 2nd August.
  • “Sarge” diecast toy cars: on 14th August.

Click here further information on product recalls in August (CPSC).

Click here to learn more about the CDC’s Lead Poisoning Prevention Programme.

Written by: Catharine Paddock