Parents Report: Lead Astray

Keeping Your Family Safe

It's crucial to reduce a child's lead level in order to prevent further neurological damage, but sadly, there's no good treatment for the damage that has already been done. Eating a low-fat diet that's high in vitamin C, calcium, and iron can slow lead absorption and possibly reduce the effects of exposure. If a child's blood-lead level exceeds 45 mcg/dL, he'll need a drug that strips lead from the body (a process known as chelation). "Without treatment, kids with lead levels of 100 mcg/dL or higher have a serious risk of seizure, coma, anemia, high blood pressure, organ failure, and even death," says Dr. Casavant. However, intelligence and behavior problems don't improve dramatically after chelation, and the drug's side effects can range from annoying (nausea and sulfur-smelling gas) to life-threatening (decreased white-blood-cell counts and severe allergic reactions).

The most effective way to lower your child's blood-lead level is to get rid of the contaminated paint or products in your home. It's not easy to remove lead paint; using dry sanders and scrapers creates lead dust and fumes, so you need to use wet-sanding methods along with high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filters. "Since you can make the problem even worse, it's important to know how to remove lead paint safely," says Ruth Ann Norton, executive director of the Coalition to End Childhood Lead Poisoning. "Be sure to use a certified contractor or attend a lead-safety training course in your area."

If you live in an old home that has lead paint hidden under coats of unleaded paint, experts say you should leave it alone unless it's blistering, cracking, or can be easily dislodged. But covered lead paint can still break down and create toxic dust because of age, friction, or repairs. "Parents should inspect surfaces regularly for signs of deterioration and clean them well every week," says Norton. To remove any lingering particles after renovating, you must use a vacuum with a HEPA filter and wet-clean all horizontal surfaces (including mini blinds) often. Six months after the Bakers started using these proper cleaning techniques, Blaine's blood-lead level dropped significantly.

With all the recent reports about dangerous chemicals in products made in China, protecting your kids from lead in metal jewelry and other items is crucial. To be safe, it's best to check recent product recalls frequently and avoid buying any cheap jewelry. "Parents assume that products marketed to kids have been tested for harmful materials like lead," says Norton. "Unfortunately, that's not always the case." According to the CPSC, its field investigators purchase a variety of kids' products and test them for lead -- but they can't test every item on the market. Manufacturers are also responsible for making sure their products don't have high levels.

However, pressure is mounting to improve the system. The CPSC is considering a stricter policy, which would ban (rather than simply recall) all metal jewelry and toys containing more than the allowed amount of lead (.06 percent by weight), and, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recently sent letters to 120 importing and manufacturing companies with past lead-related recalls warning them to test their products for lead. Last year, California passed a law requiring retailers to meet the federal standards for lead content in jewelry; companies that break the law will pay a fine. "Retailers have until March 2008 to notify metal suppliers, manufacturers, and distributors about the new standards, and to ensure that products are legal," says Caroline Cox, research director for the Center for Environmental Health, a nonprofit organization in California. Although the law is binding only in that state, companies will probably sell the lead-safe jewelry nationwide.

To help address the problem of lead contamination during renovations, the EPA is considering regulations that would require all contractors who work in child-occupied facilities to be trained in proper lead-paint-removal techniques. Although in 2000 the President's Task Force on Environmental Health Risks and Safety Risks to Children established a goal to remove lead paint from more than 20 million homes by 2010, so far, fewer than half a million of these homes are lead-safe. "We're still working backward," says Dr. Shannon. "We identify a lead-poisoned kid, and then we clean up his home. These homes should be made safe before we allow children to live in them."

Blaine Baker's mother, Cristina, certainly agrees, and she's on a crusade to prevent other kids from getting sick the way Blaine did. "There are a lot of couples in our neighborhood who are renovating houses and starting families, and they don't know that their dream home could cause a nightmare," she says. "We've got to educate parents and protect children."

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