Two weeks after my son’s one-year-old check up, we found out he had lead poisoning. We live in a 120-year-old house, but had no idea it was poisoning him. The doctor was concerned. I was in tears. In response, the state sent us a lead inspector. We discovered that our kitchen cabinets, the front porch (both stories) and all of the woodwork on the ground level were painted with lead paint. Opening and closing the cabinets in the kitchen would knock bits of lead dust into our dishes and food. Walking on the front porch would track lead dust into the house. Some of the old wallpaper (which was behind paneling) had high lead levels. The driveway and garden dirt had high lead levels. When our son chewed on the window ledge, he was sucking directly on lead paint. We found a host of toys that had high levels. Our son’s high chair had high lead levels. Everything in our world was now suspect and I was constantly wondering what else would show up on the list. I was afraid to buy anything or let him put anything in his mouth. I wondered if we were going to have to move (again). I can not count the hours I laid awake at night wondering if my son was going to come out of this alive and anywhere near normal.
Our inspector was terrific. She patiently shared information and stories to help me learn about the world of lead and lead poisoning. I was amazed by what she had to say. Here are some things I have learned about lead over the last several years:
- Toys made outside the United States frequently have high lead levels. MADE IN CHINA labels became our enemy. Lead is used as a release for plastic and to make colors brighter. Reds and yellows are the most suspicious. Your best bet it to buy toys made in the US. Buy wooden toys that are natural colors or finished with Polyurethane instead of paint. Some companies will even guarantee that their toys are lead free. Others will share their lead testing policy with you if you call their customer service number. Lead free toys can be more expensive, but your kids’ health is worth the expense. Besides, cheap plastic toys generally do not last long anyway, so why not invest in something that may last several generations?
- If your house is older than 1978, get a lead inspection done. It is worth the money. Lead shows up in unbelievable places, but paint is the usual culprit. (Beware of old painted furniture, too.) Chipping, peeling paint with lead in it creates lead dust which can be inhaled or consumed.
- Don’t let your kids put keys in their mouths. Our inspector told me several stories about kids who had high lead levels from sucking on their parents’ keys. Babies love keys because they are shiny and they jingle, but they frequently are contaminated with lead dust from a variety of sources.
- Don’t let your kids eat dirt. I was shocked to find out our driveway (dirt and gravel) and garden had super high levels of lead. Soil can be contaminated by past use of lead paint and leaded gasoline even in places where the house is newer than 1978.
- Wash kids’ hands before they eat. Most lead gets into the body via the mouth. Washing hands before eating, especially if they are eating finger foods, can help decrease lead exposure. Besides, hand washing is just a good idea anyway.
Lead and the Government
There are restrictions on lead content in all things a child age 12 and under would be exposed to, but there is little to no enforcement. There are simply too many things to test and too little time and money to test them. Companies continue to manufacture toys, jewelry and children’s furniture with high lead content. The vast majority of them are made in China or other foreign countries. Those are the toys and furniture you hear about being recalled…over and over and over again. And they are generally not being recalled because the government tested them and found them to be over the legal lead limit. Discoveries are typically made because a child tested positive for lead poisoning and a lead inspector tracked it down to that particular object. Let me just say, “That stinks!”
Effects of Lead Poisoning
Lead poisoning can cause a child to have brain damage, hearing loss, poor growth and violent behavior. My son was a late talker. Granted he is a boy and he is a second child, both of which can be cited as reasons he was not talking. But lead poisoning was also a major concern. If he could not hear, he would not know words to use when speaking. And, if there was brain damage from the lead poisoning, who knows what he was missing in our everyday conversations and learning opportunities.
Lead is toxic to adults, too. (Beethoven may have lost his hearing and eventually his life due to lead poisoning.) Lead can cause infertility, high blood pressure, memory problems and pain. Adults are less likely to have lead poisoning because they do not generally put as many non-food things in their mouths. But if you live in a house built before 1978, it is something to think about. There are new laws that require contractors working on houses older than 1978 to follow specific work practices to control lead contamination. If you are doing repairs or renovations yourself, keep lead contamination in mind. Do some research and save yourself the heartache.
Our Continuing Saga
The good news is that we have done major renovations on the house and our son’s lead levels are coming down. But, it has been three years and they are still not to acceptable levels. Getting his levels checked requires a blood draw every 3-6 months. That is not fun. Lead poisoning is not an adventure I would wish on anyone. So, do what you can to avoid going down this path with us.
Christmas is coming and there is a good chance you will be considering which toys to purchase for your child. Keep in mind the first point and choose well. Do your homework. Wash your hands and those of your children often. No one should have to deal with lead poisoning. Kids and parents have enough to worry about. Lead should not be one of them.
If you are interested, here is a terrific source for information on lead and lead poisoning. http://www.epa.gov/lead
Here’s to a lead-free childhood.
**UPDATE** Cadmium is the “replacement” for lead, but it is equally toxic with similar side effects. It just hasn’t been banned YET!