Lead in Surprising Places
But the toxic metal isn't found only indoors: Lead dust and chips from a home's painted exterior can leach into the ground. "Kids get it on their hands and toys while playing in the dirt, and family members track it inside on their shoes," says Dr. Casavant. Drinking water can be contaminated by lead pipes and solder in old homes and city water systems.
Lead in children's products, however, is a rapidly growing problem; nearly every week, the CPSC recalls a toy or necklace. Cheap jewelry, particularly items made in China or India with dull metallic components, fake painted pearls, and plastic cords, poses the most risk. According to the CPSC, jewelry sold in recent years by Claire's, Disney, and American Girl stores, to name just a few, has also tested high for lead.
Over the years, researchers have discovered that lead can be harmful at lower levels than they'd realized. In fact, the CDC has lowered the "acceptable blood-lead level" four times. In 1970, a child would have been diagnosed with lead poisoning if the amount in his blood was 60 micrograms per deciliter (mcg/dL), but now a child gets the diagnosis if his level is 10 mcg/dL or higher. However, studies have found that IQ levels drop significantly even when blood-lead levels are lower than 10 mcg/dL. "The more we learn about lead's effects, the clearer it becomes that there's no such thing as a safe amount," says Omer G. Berger, MD, director of the Lead Clinic at Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center.
Now 7, Riley Jackson has a blood-lead level of 6 mcg/dL, down from a high of 28 mcg/dL. However, Riley has been diagnosed with ADHD, and his exposure to lead could be partly to blame. Research has found that children with levels higher than 2 mcg/dL are four times more likely to have ADHD, and experts believe that lead interferes with the body's production of the neurotransmitters in the brain that are essential for impulse control. "Kids who are already genetically predisposed to ADHD are at the greatest risk," says Parents advisor Judith Owens, MD, director of the Learning, Attention, and Behavior Clinic at Rhode Island Hospital, in Providence. "Lead probably acts as a trigger in these children."