Tuesday, October 20, 2009

This is National Lead Poisoning Prevention Week!

What a busy week this is! In addition to being National Chemistry Week in the U.S. and Waste Reduction Week in Canada, my friends at the Coalition to End Childhood Lead Poisoning have reminded me that October 18-24, 2009 is also National Lead Poisoning Prevention Week.

According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, "childhood lead poisoning is considered the most preventable environmental disease among young children" and yet it still affects over one-quarter of a million of kids in the United States. The Coalition to End Childhood Lead Poisoning says that "[l]ead poisoning is the number one environmental hazard threatening children throughout the United States."

Why is lead still a problem? I thought we banned it years ago.

Historically, lead was used in just about everything, including pesticides, pipes, gasoline, paint, and batteries. But two sources — leaded gasoline and lead-based paint — caused most of the remaining exposure risk in the U.S. today.

The U.S. government's ban on leaded gasoline in motor vehicles didn't fully go into effect until 1996. Prior to that time, exhaust from cars released lead onto roadways and adjacent soils.

Lead-based paint was banned from U.S. residential use over 30 years ago. But homes built before 1978 often contain lead-based paint. Home renovations can disturb lead paint lurking just below the surface. It is difficult to safely remove it. Traditional paint removal techniques, like dry sanding, are not recommended. Once released, lead dust can spread throughout your house, contaminating everything.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recently passed a new rule requiring that contractors be certified in lead-safe practices before renovating or repairing buildings that may contain lead paint. This rule goes into effect next year.

How can exposure to lead affect me?

Our bodies mistake lead for the beneficial (and chemically similar) elements of calcium and iron. The human body can store lead in bones and teeth in place of calcium. Lead can be found in the bloodstream, substituting for iron. The effects of lead on the human body are most pronounced in the central nervous system.

The more lead in your system, the greater your risk for having adverse health effects, like cognitive impairment, headaches, irritability, stomach upset, learning disabilities, and seizures. These effects are most pronounced in children. Pregnant women exposed to lead can suffer from stillbirths and miscarriages.

I think my family may have been exposed to lead. What should I do?

Visit your doctor. Request a blood-lead test to put your mind at ease. Fortunately, the test is simple, involving a simple finger prick or blood draw.

Feed your family a good, nutritious diet high in calcium and iron. The more calcium and iron in your system, the less likely that your body will take up the lead.

Maintain your home.
If you think that your home contains lead-based paint, damp-mop areas that may contain lead dust, like windowsills or doorways.

Keep dirt outside. Have family members remove their shoes when coming in from the outdoors. Wipe the paws of your pets before they come inside. Wash your hands after gardening or playing in the dirt.

Avoid cheap costume jewelry. Some items, simply put, are frequent offenders of the lead paint ban. It is best to avoid giving them to children. If you have concerns about a toy, check with the Consumer Product Safety Commission to see if it has been recalled.

For more information:

Visit The Coalition to End Childhood Lead Poisoning for more tips on how to protect your family.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention offer these Lead Poisoning Prevention Tips.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has an entire section of their website devoted to the topic of lead. They also have a nice page detailing different Lead Prevention Week activities scheduled across the country.

Portions of this post previously appeared in Blood Level Basics: What You Really Need to Know in the October 2006 issue of Washington Parent magazine.

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