Preventing Lead Exposure in Your Children

Peeling paint

You have probably heard that you should prevent your children from being exposed to lead in house paint and on imported toys. No amount of lead exposure is safe. Any lead exposure, in whatever system of the body it lands, causes harm.

Preventing lead exposure in children and pregnant women is especially important because of the permanent neurological damage it can cause, impairing learning and behavior for life.

Where Are Children Exposed to Lead?

I didn’t realize how common lead exposure through drinking water is until I read my local water report for this past year and paid attention to the fact that my water filter specifically filters out lead. I thought exposures came mostly through lead-based paints, but lead is more pervasive in our lives than that because of all of the ways lead has been used in industrial society. The word “plumbing,” for example, comes from the Latin word for lead, plumbum, because lead pipes were so common. Have you ever played Clue (or Cluedo)? We still use lead pipes in the game.

Lead is pervasive.

These are just some of the ways your children can be exposed to lead.

  • Lead-based paints in houses built before 1960s in Canada or painted before 1978 in the U.S.
  • Plumbing installed before 1990 in Canada or 1986 in the U.S.
  • ANY plumbing fixtures, since even “lead-free” fixtures can contain up to 8% lead
  • Any water that moves through plumbing fixtures, especially in older houses
  • Almost all food, which can pick up traces of lead from soil an air
  • Canned food, because of lead in solder (though Canadian manufacturers have eliminated lead from solder)
  • Air, since industrial emissions can put lead into our air, though banning leaded gasoline in Canada in 1990 has meant almost undetectable levels of lead in the air
  • Dust from industrial emissions, from lead-paint, or even from from rocks that include lead naturally
  • Soil where lead dust has settled
  • Shoes that pick up settled lead dust
  • Carpet where people have walked with lead dust on their shoes
  • Leaded crystal, especially with acidic drinks like fruit juice or wine
  • Lead-glazed ceramics or glassware, especially with acidic food or drinks
  • Fumes from candles with lead in the wicks
  • Fumes from burning wood with lead-paint, batteries, or other waste
  • Lead or lead solder used in created stained glass and other crafts
  • Hunting with lead shot or fishing with lead weights
  • Wild game shot with lead shot
  • Contaminated clothes brought home after being worn at work at a foundry, refinery, or smelter
  • Breastmilk, since mothers exposed to lead can pass it on to their babies

I’m sure you get the idea. Am I suggesting you not exposure your child to breastmilk? Absolutely not. I just want you to understand how lead is everywhere. To limit exposures, we have to be smart about where lead has come from.

What Does Lead Exposure Look Like?

It isn’t always easy to recognize symptoms of lead exposure until there is serious damage done, but symptoms and effects can include nervous system damage, cognitive impairment or impairment of cognitive development, developmental delays, aggression, attention problems, hearing impairment, sight impairment, headaches, metabolism and digestive issues. For a long, alarming list of potential impacts of lead poisoning along with the cited studies that have found the problems, see Lead Action News from Australia.

Prevent Lead Exposure in Your Children

The smartest approach to lead exposure is to prevent it before children or developing fetuses are exposed. Considering how common lead is in our environment now and how dire the consequences of exposure are, it’s difficult not to be discouraged, but you can still take steps to prevent your children’s exposure.

  • Understand where exposures happen and avoid them
  • When you are pregnant, especially, stay away from all of the likely places of lead exposure
  • Have your drinking water tested
  • Filter your drinking water for lead
  • Eat an iron-rich and calcium-rich diet for yourself and your children to prevent lead absorption
  • Have a professional remove lead paint from your house to limit dust and exposure
  • Replace lead soldered plumbing
  • Damp dust to prevent exposure to settling lead
  • Vacuum frequently
  • Remove shoes at the door
  • Teach your children what to avoid and why
  • When you have young children, watch what goes in their mouths.
  • Buy toys, especially toys for young children, made from natural materials by manufacturers you trust.

Because you need to prevent the exposure when your children are quite small, try to get their help by teaching them what to avoid. The New York State Department of Health has developed a curriculum to help preschool children and their families understand the risks and avoidance of lead poisoning. Some of the songs, activities, crafts, and stories could be used effectively at the family level.

Image © Inna Felker |

Most Plastics Leach Hormone-like Chemicals

A worrying new study found that BPA is not the only chemical leaching from common household plastic products that come in contact with food. Sonya Lunder, a senior analyst from the Environmental Working Group said in an NPR story Wednesday:

“We’ve long cautioned consumers to avoid extreme heat and cooling for plastics, to discard scratched and worn plastics and we feel like this (study) validates one of our many concerns,” she says.

According to the journal Environmental Health Perspectives, this is a problem that can be solved.

Plastic-free Products: Sleeping

Fine cotton baby blanket

When the U.S. CPSIA banned certain phthalates in children’s sleeping products, I think they had in mind primarily sucking products. Pajamas count here, too, since there could conceivably be soft plastics in surface decorations or in the skid-preventing patterns on footie pajamas. Kids can suck those, but they aren’t designed to be sucked. Basically, because very young children put so much in their mouths, everything made for children under 3 becomes a suckable item.

It’s not a bad thing to avoid plastics in pillows, blankets, and all of the other sleep products for kids, but it is just silly to consider that an organic cotton blanket is subject to testing for soft plastics. It is not difficult to see why manufacturers and retailers who are concerned about toxic chemicals in children’s products are still unhappy about the U.S. law.

Still, I’m using the CPSIA as my guide this week for switching from products that contain plastics to plastic-free products for feeding, sleeping, and toys for children.

Easy Plastic-free Changes

As with my plastic-free feeding recommendations, the easiest changes we can make are to switch to plastic-free products that do much the same thing as the plastic products. These are the painless changes.

Vinyl-free bedding

Whatever our blankets and pillows breathe out, we breathe in all night. Because of the sweet, carcinogenic, endocrine-disrupting smell of vinyl chloride, it is particularly important to get vinyl out of bedding.

Baby Mattress PadA lot of parents are concerned about leaking diapers and wet beds. There are a couple of ways to approach this problem. Use a diaper that doesn’t leak or use a mattress pad. A vinyl-free mattress pad is a start, but it isn’t necessarily plastic-free, since a lot of waterproof items still have microfibers or polyurethane laminate or both. The truly plastic-free, waterproof mattress pad is wool. A wool changing pad will work if your baby doesn’t move much during the night, or a larger wool blanket can but put under the sheets to prevent leaking into the mattress.

Baby blankets of 100% cotton or 100% soft, merino wool are naturally absorbent. They will keep your baby warm enough while still breathing to avoid the wrapped-in-plastic feeling in the morning.


As with blankets, natural materials are the least toxic choice for your sleeping child. You don’t need soft plastic printing or decorations on the pajamas, you don’t need microfiber for absorbency, you don’t need toxic fabric treatments. It isn’t easy to find untreated, natural fiber pajamas, but it is worth the effort.


A baby gets more than nutrition from breastfeeding. They suck for comfort. There are plastic breast-substitutes available, but letting a baby suck is the natural, stuff-free way to go. held off stocking pacifiers for almost 5 years, but customers asked time and time again for an all-natural, non-toxic option they could trust. So, they stocked the Natursutten pacifier in natural rubber, the safest pacifier on the market. NOTE: If you are planning to breastfeed, it is highly recommended that no pacifier or bottle be introduced until you have a strong nursing relationship established.


Wool diaper coverNighttime diapering is not mysterious. All it takes is enough absorbency and enough leak protection. Trying to use the same diapers for 8-12 hours that a baby wears during the day for 2-4 hours is asking for an accident, so don’t! It is easy to adjust absorbency of cloth diapers. You will need to adapt to your baby’s needs—how long does she sleep, when does she wet at night and how much. Start with 2-3 organic cotton prefolds and a nice, Canadian-made, 100% wool Aristocrats wool soaker and adjust from there.

That ammonia smell that can become very concentrated in a baby’s diaper by morning may cause chemical reactions in soft plastics. Polyester, polyurethane, and other polymers are broken down in the recycling (depolymerization) process with, among other chemical agents, ammonia. (Feedstock Recycling of Plastic Wastes, José Aguado and David P. Serrano, p55.) So, avoid plastics in diapers and diaper covers in order to avoid this particular science experiment.

Those are a few, simple first steps to take, but this is still a STUFF-oriented approach. After I finish by writing about toys tomorrow, I will follow with further steps at the end of June in our second week of focus on plastic.

Plastic-free Products: Feeding

Wean Cubes glass baby food jarsIn our Focus on Plastic, we want to take positive steps to reduce the use of plastic for our families. For the rest of this week, I’ll write about plastic-free products for children.

Two Big Issues with Plastic Use

The first issue, off-gassing.

New car smell. You know that characteristic smell and that of a new shower curtain or plastic doll. You may be smelling the sweet, mild smell of vinyl chloride, which is used to make PVC (polyvinyl chloride). Short-term exposures can cause dizziness and headaches, while long-term exposures can cause liver damage, cancer, and reproductive effects. The smell tends to go away over time.

The polymers (long chains of molecules) that make up soft plastics are more likely to have unreacted monomers (single, unchained molecules). Outgassing happens as unreacted chemical monomers are released. Once the unreacted monomers are released, the smell is more mild or even undetectable.

We get used to the smell and even crave it to trigger memory. What else could explain the desire to buy “New car smell spray”? Some people sniff glue, too, but that doesn’t mean it’s a good idea. Vinyl research is extensive, and research on other soft plastics is building. We’ve trained ourselves to crave what is harming us.

In the case of outgassing, there is no further chemical reaction necessary to release the toxins since they are not chained to the polymers. We might detect their release as smell, or they might leach into our water from plastic single-use water bottles or plastic linings of reusable water bottles.

The second issue, chemical reactions changing the plastic.

Unreacted chemicals in plastics can be released, but there can also be new reactions that change the plastics and allow the release of further toxins. Putting an acidic food like tomatoes in a plastic lined metal can will create a reaction. BPA (bisphenol A), a plastic chemical that “functions like a synthetic estrogen,” has been found in canned foods. This is the endocrine disruption that has been in the news for years. Unsafe levels of BPA are also found in 1 of 3 cans of infant formula.

Another issue, closely related to the second, radiation.

If you leave plastic water in the car in the sun, microwave food in plastic containers, or leave plastic toys in the yard, there could be a reaction between the ultraviolet light or the radiation and the plastic. Heating plastic can degrade the chemical bond. That chemical reaction could then leave toxins in the plastic that can be released.

In a microwave, the particular dangers come with fatty foods cooked at high temperatures. Even the most conservative advice urges us not to let plastics, like thin plastic wrap, touch foods in the microwave.

These are only a few of the possibilities. Frankly, like so many toxic situations in our world, it’s overwhelming. But, the point of today’s post is to consider eco baby steps.

Danger Areas

The U.S. CPSIA bans six phthalates in children’s products, three permanently and three pending further review. Those plastic chemicals banned are prohibited in children’s toys and child-care articles, which includes feeding, sleeping, and sucking.

Following this logic, I’ve divided products into three areas to discuss plastic-free alternatives: feeding, sleeping, and toys. Today, feeding. Sleeping and toys will follow in the next two days.

Easy Plastic-free Changes

The easiest changes we can make are to switch to plastic-free products that do much the same thing as the plastic products that have become so common over the past half century. There is little lifestyle change required to make a switch to plastic-free feeding products.


Glass baby bottleSome of the choices for babies and children are the same for the whole family. The changes we have made in the past couple of years are: have milk delivered in glass bottles, use glass containers for leftovers, and buy more products, especially ALL tomato products, in glass jars. Our county recycles all clear glass, and, though we don’t have curbside pick-up, we make a monthly visit to our recycling center to drop off everything we have collected.

The switch to glass is easy. Before there was plastic, there was glass. When plastic is banned, glass will still be with us. already carries glass baby bottles, and glass baby food jars are coming soon. Despite calling them “baby food jars,” these small glass containers (the big photo at the top of the post) are perfect for holding spices, cake decorating supplies, or small amounts of leftovers.

Stainless Steel

Stainless Steel children's dishFor serving, stainless steel is a great option because a child can drop it, and it won’t break like glass or ceramics can. has a big variety of cups, dishes, and feeding accessories in stainless steel, including a cool divided tray in the shape of a bus. The one thing that really surprised me the first time I saw it was a stainless steel straw. Brilliant!

Another easy way to avoid plastic while dining out is to carry flatware with you. When I built my 72-hour bug-out bag of essentials, I saw a huge collection of different kinds of travel flatware. Some of them were camping utensils that hook all together, which can be a convenient way to keep from losing the occasional spoon in the bottom of your bag, but I choose a heavier set that came in its own snapping case. After I use and wipe down the utensils, I can just tuck them in their case and take them home to clean the utensils and the case. You don’t have to be so fancy. Just throw a few sets of flatware in a reusable cloth bag like the Planet Wise mini wet/dry bag, which is just the right size and can handle any mess you tuck into it.

Those are a few, simple first steps to take, but this is still a STUFF-oriented approach. After covering sleeping products and toys this week, I will follow with further steps at the end of June in our second week of focus on plastic.