What is lead?
Lead is a metal found in small amounts in the earth’s crust. Lead has many different uses. It is used in the production of batteries, ammunition, metal products (solder and pipes), and devices to shield X-rays. Because of health concerns, lead from paints and ceramic products, caulking, and pipe solder has been dramatically reduced in recent years. It was banned for use in US household paint by the Consumer Product Safety Commission, beginning in March 1978. The use of lead as an additive to gasoline has been banned in the United States for many years. Lead itself does not break down, but lead compounds are changed by sunlight, air, and water. Old lead paint that is exposed to the sun will chalk, producing toxic and very harmful lead dust. Old lead pipes that carry water to homes can corrode, with the lead ending up in household water.
How can lead affect my health?
The effects of lead are the same whether it enters the body through breathing or swallowing. Lead can affect almost every organ and system in the body. Lead is a neurotoxin. The main target for lead toxicity is the brain and the nervous system, both in adults and in children. Long-term exposure of adults can result in decreased performance in some tests that measure functions of the nervous system. It may also cause weakness in fingers, wrists, or ankles. Lead exposure also causes small increases in blood pressure, particularly in middle-aged and older people, and can cause anemia. Exposure to high lead levels can severely damage the brain and kidneys in adults or children and ultimately can cause death. In pregnant women, high levels of exposure to lead may cause miscarriage. High-level exposure in men can damage the organs responsible for sperm production.
Lead poisoning: A major problem for children
If your home is older than 1978, it very likely has lead paint inside – even if that paint has been covered by newer paint or enclosed behind new walls. Anything that disrupts the paint can make your home extremely hazardous to your child. Small children can be exposed by eating lead-based paint chips, chewing on objects painted with lead-based paint, or swallowing house dust or soil that contains lead. Swallowing dust occurs more easily than one might think. When a young child gets dust on their fingers, those fingers often end up in their mouth, and the lead enters the child’s blood stream from there.
Children are more vulnerable to lead poisoning than adults. A child who swallows large amounts of lead may develop blood anemia, a painful stomach-ache, muscle weakness, and/or severe brain damage. If a child swallows smaller amounts of lead, which is typically what occurs in most cases of lead poisoning seen today, lead can not only affect a child’s mental and physical growth, it can also cause loss of IQ points, learning disabilities and behavior problems.
Exposure to lead is most dangerous for young children and for fetuses. Fetuses can be exposed to lead through their mothers, because lead crosses the placenta. Harmful effects include premature births, smaller babies, decreased mental ability in the infant, learning difficulties, and reduced growth in young children. These effects are more common if the mother or baby was exposed to high levels of lead. Even if the mother was exposed to lead only as a child, that lead was stored in her bones and is released during pregnancy, causing harm to the fetus. Young children who are exposed to lead, even in small amounts, are almost always subject to harmful health effects, as described above. Some of these may be subtle, such as reduced IQ level.
Testing your home for lead
Have a professional check your home for lead hazards. Home lead tests are available, but they are not always reliable.
Lead inspection. A lead inspection checks for lead presence in painted surfaces in your home, but it doesn’t determine whether the home presents an imminent health threat to its occupants.
Risk assessment. A risk assessment is more comprehensive and tells you if your home contains dangerous lead sources, such as lead-contaminated dust, and tells you how to reduce or control the hazards.
Once lead-based paint hazards have been identified, the best practice is to hire a certified lead abatement professional who can safely eliminate those hazards. The District Department of the Environment has a list of certified lead professionals that it updates every few weeks.
Testing your child for lead
The only way to know for sure if a child has lead in their body is to have a qualified health professional conduct a lead screening (a blood test). In Washington D.C., lead screening for children is more than just a good idea — it’s the law. Because lead poisoning disproportionately affects those with less access to healthcare, it is critical to find ways to screen all children.
The District law stipulates that children must be tested twice by the time they are two years old, the first test occurring during well-child visits between months 6 and 14, and the second between months 22 and 26. Even if a child misses one or both of these screenings, the law still requires that children be tested twice before six years of age. Also, when additional risk factors so dictate, such as living in a pre-1978 home that has recently undergone renovation, or having a sibling with lead poisoning, children may need to be screened at additional moments in their lives, as further detailed in District regulations. And District law also requires that a parent or guardian be able to produce proof that a child was tested for lead, before they are admitted to any school or daycare in the nation’s capital.
Lead screening laws in the District of Columbia are designed to ensure the identification of children with elevated blood lead levels and to maximize opportunities for early intervention. It’s important that both parents and pediatricians understand and recognize these health-protective requirements.
What you can do to further protect your child
- Make sure to keep all paint in your home in good repair – there should be no chipping, peeling or flaking paint.
- Periodically clean horizontal surfaces like window sills, using a detergent and plenty of “elbow grease”?
- Use lead-safe work practices* (En Español)* when disturbing paint during home repairs or maintenance.
- Use a filter to remove lead from water you use for drinking or cooking.
- Get your soil tested if you have a home vegetable garden.
- Dispose of old electronics properly. Many of them contain lead.