As a pediatrician, part of my job is to help parents take care of their children, so they can grow up healthy and reach their full potential. This includes looking out for environmental hazards, such as lead. 

Toxic lead exposure has been in the news quite a bit lately, as we’re seeing with the evolving Exide story, as well as in air pollution and contaminated water pipes. But, there isn’t as much information about what makes lead dangerous or how we can protect ourselves and our families.

So, here are a few answers to common questions about lead that I get from parents.

Should you or your children get tested for lead poisoning?

Yes — testing is recommended for children who qualify for, or are enrolled in, Medicaid (Medi-Cal in California). They should be tested for lead at ages 1 and 2, or between 2 and 6 if previous testing isn’t documented, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Other children should be tested if they have risk factors, such as eating paint chips or living in a contaminated area.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends screening for lead exposures at all checkups for kids between 6 months and 6 years of age to determine if blood tests are needed.

If you’re worried about your child’s lead exposure, make an appointment with your child’s doctor or nearby clinic to ask about possible lead exposure and if blood tests are needed. The test is done on blood from a finger stick or a vein. The finger stick can be contaminated with lead on the skin, so if the level is high, a repeat test using blood from a vein will be needed.

Although children are at more risk, lead poisoning can also occur in adults. Symptoms for adults with lead poisoning can include high blood pressure, low fertility, pregnancy complications including premature births, stomach cramps, headaches, and problems with memory and concentration, among other symptoms. If you have any of those symptoms and think you may have been exposed to lead, it’s worth getting a blood test to confirm. 

What can you do to protect yourself and your family?

For people in your household:

  • At their doctor’s office or clinic, ask if your children have been screened for lead exposures and if needed, blood tests performed.
  • Frequently wash your children’s toys with soap and water.
  • Everyone should wash their hands before eating and sleeping.
  • Include healthy foods with calcium, iron, and vitamin C in your children’s diet. These foods may help keep lead out of the body. Calcium is in milk and milk products, like cheese and yogurt, as well as broccoli, kale, dried figs and canned sardines and salmon. Iron-rich foods include red meat, spinach and other dark green leafy vegetables, peanut butter, and fortified cereals. Vitamin C is in oranges, other citrus foods, strawberries and broccoli. 
  • Avoid use of food containers that use lead crystal, earthenware, or lead-glazed or decorated with lead paint, such clay pots. 
  • Don’t use folk remedies known to contain lead, such as greta or azarcon, as their lead content may be 70% or greater.
  • Makeup legally available in the U.S. is rarely contaminated with lead. However, traditional eye cosmetics containing kohl, kajal, al-kahal, surma, tiro, tozali, or kwalli, have been associated with lead poisoning and should be avoided. They are not legally sold in the U.S.
A picture of a window sill with white paint that is cracking, revealing several more layers of chipping paint below, all the way down to the wood of the sill.
Old and chipping paint is a common source of lead in housing. (Matthew Tinoco)

In your house of apartment:

  • Look for possible sources of lead in your house or apartment, especially dwellings built before 1978. 
  • Clean up paint chips or dust using wet paper towels and cover chipping paint with contact paper or duct tape.
  • Clean thoroughly around windows, floors and children’s play areas, while wearing gloves and a face cover over nose and mouth.
  • Lead testing kits are relatively inexpensive, and typically available at hardware stores and online retailers. If a home test shows lead contamination, you can test further for better information. 
  • If possible, have your home checked by a professional lead inspector.
  • Renovations for structures built before 1978 should only be performed by lead-safe certified contractors, following specific rules from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

For your water:

We do not control our water source, and water can be contaminated from lead pipes or faucets,  and private well water can be contaminated from the environment. 

  • Remember that boiling does not remove lead.
  • Clean the screens on faucets regularly.
  • If affordable, purchase a filter certified to remove lead for your faucets.
  • You can ask your water company for additional information about their main pipes and lea levels in your water supply.
  • The EPA has a Safe Drinking Hotline at 1-800-426-4791.

DPH is supposed to send an environmental health specialist to homes of children with elevated lead levels to help identify the lead hazards. If the house has contaminated dust, soil or water, the specialist notifies the property owner, who is required to eliminate or contain the hazards. If necessary, the specialist will refer the case to the city or district attorney to ensure compliance. Landlords are supposed to tell tenants about any known lead-based paint or other hazards on the property before the lease takes effect. Sellers have the same requirement before selling a house. However, landlords and sellers are not obligated to remove lead paint.

If lead exposure in a structure built before 1978 was not disclosed to you by a landlord or seller, you can contact Housing and Urban Development at 1-800-424-LEAD (5323) for help. 

Unfortunately, even if you’ve implemented all the best practices to avoid lead exposure, much exposure is difficult to control as an individual. Lead exposure often comes from environmental contamination caused by companies that don’t properly dispose of toxic waste. 

What is lead?

It is a naturally occurring chemical in the earth’s crust, and it can be found in the soil and water, as well as  in trace amounts in air. Natural levels in the soil range from 50 to 400 parts per million (ppm). 

What harm does lead cause?

There are no safe levels of lead in the body, although higher amounts lead to more damage and worse outcomes.

Lead is a neurotoxin, meaning it’s hazardous to the brain and nervous system, but it’s toxic to all organs in the body. Poor growth, kidney problems and blood disorders, including anemia or low blood count, are other harmful effects seen with lead poisoning in children.

Especially worrisome are lead’s toxic effects on the developing brains of infants and children younger than 6. Even at low levels, lead can cause developmental delays, lower IQ, learning problems and poor school performance. Psychological disorders, such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), phobias, and depression, can also occur. 

Children born into and growing up in contaminated houses, schools, or communities are particularly vulnerable to lead poisoning. Chronic, low-level exposure appears to be most harmful for children.

Where do we get exposed to lead?

The small amounts of lead naturally in the environment aren’t a problem. However, exposure to high amounts can cause lead poisoning. Toxic lead levels usually result from human activities, including burning fossil fuels, household products and use in industry. 

People of color and individuals in low-income communities may have more risks for lead exposures, as they are more likely to live near an industrial area, or have substandard housing. For example, the population of Vernon, the city where Exide Technologies facility operated, is nearly 90% Latino.

Active and defunct industrial sites, such as mining, smelters and refineries, can emit lead into the environment and cause significantly increased lead levels in nearby neighborhoods. This happened in areas surrounding the Exide facility, where soil lead levels were found to be 52,000 ppm in 2008. Notably at that time, California deemed concentrations of 1,000 ppm and above as hazardous

The Los Angeles County Department of Public Health (DPH) has a lead prevention program, and you can call for help at 323-659-6553 or their toll free hotline 1-800-LA-4-LEAD (1-800-524-5323) during business hours.

Mink is a pediatrician and journalist who loves her adopted home of Los Angeles of 20-plus years, her family of humans and two rescue pups, and a daily dose of chocolate.