Lead, is a substance that occurs naturally on earth. It has been used for time immemorial, including by the Indus Valley civilisation. However, this useful metal has horrifying side effects, particularly on children.
Lead is a neurotoxin that results in long term effects on children. Children are particularly susceptible because they have high hand-to-mouth activity. They touch various sources of lead and ingest it into their bodies, where it spreads everywhere. And wherever it goes, it causes damage.
Effects of lead poisoning
- Lower cognitive levels
- Learning disabilities
- Lack of concentration
- Poor memory
- Violent behaviour
- Hyperactivity (ADHD)
Symptoms of lead poisoning
It is critical to understand that a number of children may never exhibit these symptoms and the only way to diagnose lead poisoning is through a blood test.
- Poor memory
- Seizures (at very high levels)
These effects get worse as children grow and continue to be exposed to lead. Blood lead levels are measured in micrograms/litre. In the US, regulations suggest medical attention is required if lead levels are > 10 micrograms/litre. Parents should discuss this with their paediatrician and make a lead level test a regular feature of their children's health check. Don't let your paediatrician convince you that this is a "Western" problem. This issue is as prevalent in India as in other countries, unfortunately awareness is low.
If unacceptable levels of lead are found in a blood test, work with your paediatrician to determine how to solve the problem. Usually the first step is to isolate the source of the lead and to reduce its usage thus reducing exposure. If the levels are extremely high, the paediatrician may suggest other treatments which can try to reduce the lead levels in the body.
Sources of lead poisoning
Paint - One of the biggest sources of lead is wall, wood and metal paint. Paint chips or flakes easily find their way into a child's mouth. Try to use paints with low lead levels. Moreover, when paint is peeling or chipping, fix it quickly. Do not delay.
Soil and dust - Soil and dust are another source of lead. If you live in a dusty area, wipe down the entire house (furniture, nooks, crevices etc.) and mop your floor at least once a day. Get children to wash their hands and feet when they come back from playing outside, and before eating anything.
Ceramics and dinnerware - Lead is also found often in ceramics and dinnerware. It is used as a glaze or in producing colourful patterns.. Crystal often contains lead also, and therefore once should be careful in serving food and drink in these1.
Water pipes - Water pipes are another source. Galvanised pipes use lead. Unfortunately, these are very prevalent in India's water supply infrastructure and in our buildings. If you suspect you have lead pipes, then let your cold water run for 30 seconds to 2 minutes, before you use it. Don't drink any of the hot water from your pipes or use it in cooking.
Toys of poor quality - Lead is often used in richly coloured paints and these are often used in children's toys1. With the move to manufacture toys in locations like China where environmental enforcement and manufacturing quality are lax, a number of children's toys have been discovered to have lead paint in the last year. Millions of toys were recalled last year after they were sold to an unsuspecting public. Mattel, recalled about 675000 Barbie accessory toys in September 2007 because of high lead paint levels. Fisher-Price recalled about 2.3 million Sesame Street, Dora and other children's character toys in August 2007. Over 1.5 million Thomas & Friends wooden railway toys were recalled in 2007. As you can see the problem is widespread and even the biggest brands are affected. It is hard as a parent to know whether a toy is safe or not. It appears that one can only take action after the fact.
Leaded gasoline - Till a few years ago, the biggest source of lead poisoning was from the use of leaded gasoline. Thankfully governments have moved to regulate this source and unleaded gasoline is the norm in most countries. However, lead continues to persist in the environment. It mingles with dust and a number of old machines and infrastructure contain a lot of lead. Moreover, lead continues to find its way into our households.
1. Lead Poisoning Prevention, University of North Carolina, Asheville, NC, USA