Exposure to lead in housing poses a significant health
risk to young children. Lead is a heavy metal used in many materials and products.
When absorbed into the body, it is highly toxic to many organs and systems and
seriously hinders the body's neurological development. Lead is most harmful to
children under age six because it is easily absorbed into their growing bodies
and interferes with the developing brain and other organs and systems. Pregnant
women and women of child-bearing age are also at increased risk, because lead
ingested by the mother can cross the placenta and affect the unborn fetus.
Lead poisoning causes irreversible health effects
and there is no cure for lead poisoning. At very low levels of exposure in children,
lead causes reduced IQ and attention span, hyperactivity, impaired growth, reading
and learning disabilities, hearing loss, insomnia, and a range of other health,
intellectual, and behavioral problems. At low levels, lead poisoning may not
present identifiable symptoms, and a blood
test is the only way to know if a child is poisoned. At very high
levels of exposure, which are now very rare in the U.S., lead poisoning can
cause mental retardation, coma, convulsions, and even death.
As lead poisoning rates have declined nationally,
the disparities of this disease have increased. In some communities, the rate
of exposure is about five times the national average, which is estimated at
1.6 percent of children aged 1-5. In the U.S., children from poor families are
more likely to be poisoned than those from higher income families. African-American
children are also at increased risk, when compared with both Hispanic and white
National health experts agree that exposure to lead-contaminated
dust from deteriorated lead-based paint in older homes is the primary pathway
for lead exposure in young children.
Lead dust settles quickly, is difficult to clean up, and is invisible to the
naked eye. Young children usually are poisoned through normal hand-to-mouth
activity, as lead dust settles on their toys and the floor. Children may also
be seriously poisoned by eating lead-based paint chips, but this is relatively
Soil in the vicinity of the home can also be contaminated
by flaking exterior lead-based paint, previous deposits of leaded gasoline,
and exterior sandblasting. In yards where soil is contaminated with lead, children
can become exposed to harmful levels of the heavy metal when they get their
hands dirty and place their fingers or a dirty or dusty toy in their mouths
during normal play activity. Lead-contaminated soil and dust can also be tracked
into homes on shoes or by pets or can be blown in through open windows and doors.
Vegetables grown in lead-contaminated soil may absorb lead and poison children
Drinking water may become contaminated with lead
from pipes or solder when water corrodes them. Less common sources include workplace
exposures to lead where workers may receive doses well above those experienced
by the general population. Exposed workers may carry lead particles home on
their clothing, shoes, or hair, putting family members at risk. Those who work
in construction, demolition, painting, with batteries, in radiator repair shops,
lead factories, or with a hobby that involves lead are often exposed to lead.
Rare sources of exposure include food and drink stored in leaded crystal, lead-soldered
cans, or lead-glazed ceramicware; home remedies and cosmetics that are popular
in some cultures; and some consumer products.
Except for severely poisoned children, there is
no medical treatment for this disease. While drug therapy can reduce high levels
of lead in the body, it does not undo the harm caused to developing organs and
systems. A blood
lead test is the only way to determine if a child has lead poisoning.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) defines a blood lead
level of 10 µg/dl as a level of concern, indicating that steps should
be taken to reduce ongoing lead exposure. Recent research has found adverse
health effects, including learning disabilities, at much lower levels of exposure.
Most health department lead poisoning prevention programs postpone action to
address lead-based paint hazards until after a child has been identified as
lead poisoned. In effect, children are used to detect lead hazards in their
homes. Over the past decade, emphasis has shifted to primary prevention to prevent
and control lead hazards in housing before a child's health is harmed.