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 |

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