In 1999, Debbi and Bob Rodak bought their dream house, in Emporia, Kansas: a 7,500-square-foot Victorian built in 1894. When the agent handed them the keys, they knew the house needed some work, but they were looking forward to renovating and creating a home for their children -- 3-month-old Sarah, 18-month-old Ashley, and 10-year-old Philip. However, only two years later, the Rodaks were forced to say goodbye to their beloved home. Why? It was slowly poisoning their two younger children with lead.
Unfortunately, their story is not unique. Experts have known for more than a century that exposure to lead damages the developing brains of young children. Despite the fact that lead paint was banned from the market in 1978, one quarter of all homes in this country still have unsafe lead levels, according to the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). Thirty-eight million homes have at least some lead paint.
Lead poisoning affects more than 434,000 children under the age of 6, estimates the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), but recent research suggests that five times that many -- 10 percent of all young children -- may actually be in danger. What's most frightening is that most parents have no clue that their children are at risk -- and that the neurological damage caused by lead is irreversible.
Most people assume that paint chips are the primary culprit in lead poisoning. However, the toxin is much more insidious than we realize. Every time you open a window or a door that was once painted with lead-based paint, the friction can create microscopic lead dust that gets into the air and your lungs, as well as onto clothing, toys, furniture, carpets, and other household surfaces. And every time your child touches the dust and then puts his hand (or any dust-covered object) into his mouth, he is ingesting lead, which builds up in the body. Babies and toddlers -- whose brains are growing the most rapidly and who are most likely to put things into their mouth -- are at the highest risk for ingesting and being harmed by lead.
The elimination of lead gasoline and the removal of lead as a soldering agent in food cans has reduced overall environmental lead levels in this country, but lead used in some kinds of manufacturing is still found in the soil and air, as well as in produce and drinking water. And lead that's in paint on the exterior of your home, as well as on wooden furniture or play sets, can also leach into the soil, where it can be tracked inside your home on the bottom of your shoes, says Lynnette Mazur, M.D., a professor of pediatrics at the University of Texas, in Houston, and a member of the American Academy of Pediatrics' (AAP) Committee on Environmental Health.
Interestingly, there are some regional differences in the prevalence of lead. According to HUD, 40 percent of homes in the Northeast, 33 percent of homes in the Midwest, 17 percent of homes in the South, and 15 percent of homes in the West have unsafe lead levels.
Although lead can be toxic to nearly every organ in a child's body, lead poisoning most commonly causes learning disabilities, speech delays, and behavioral problems, including aggressiveness. Physical symptoms run the gamut from poor appetite to stomach pain to persistent sluggishness. Yet for many kids, lead is never identified as the cause of any of these symptoms. In high doses, lead poisoning can lead to kidney damage, deafness, and coma.
Over the last 29 years, the CDC has repeatedly lowered the blood level of lead that it considers to be dangerous for young children. Its current guidelines say that anything over 10 micrograms per deciliter is harmful. However, a recent study published in The New England Journal of Medicine found that lead levels between 5 and 10 can also cause a drop in a child's IQ score. According to the most recent figures, approximately 1.5 million children under age 6 have these harmful lower blood lead levels, says Richard L. Canfield, Ph.D., a coauthor of the study and a professor at Cornell University, in Ithaca, New York. "There is no normal range for lead, because lead is not part of normal body chemistry in the way some other minerals are," adds Tom Matte, M.D., a medical epidemiologist at the CDC. "Even at very low levels, there's evidence of subtle but adverse effects."
If there were a simple treatment for lead poisoning, the statistics might not be so grim. Chelation therapy, which entails giving lead-binding chemicals orally or intravenously, is sometimes used on children with very high lead levels, but it may not be possible to reverse the damage that has already been done, says Michael Shannon, M.D., an associate professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School.
The good news is that there are precautions you can take. Here are the best ways to safeguard your family.
Debbi Rodak is grateful that her doctor conducted routine screenings. The results of her toddler Ashley's blood test were 43 micrograms per deciliter -- more than four times the level the CDC considers unsafe. "Lead paint didn't just disappear when it was banned in the 1970s," she says. "We're proof that it's out there and it's a real threat."