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ITV American Academy of Pediatrics Discovery Health Channel

Lead Poisoning

During the first two or three years of life, your child is bound to go through a phase of putting things other than food into his mouth. He'll chew on his toys, taste the sand in the playground, and sample the cat's food if given the opportunity. As annoying as this can be for you, few of these things will cause him any serious harm, as long as you keep poisons and sharp objects out of his reach. Lead is one dangerous substance; however, that your child can consume without your knowledge.

Contrary to popular belief, lead poisoning is not caused by chewing on a pencil or being stabbed with its point. The so-called "lead" in a pencil actually is harmless graphite, and there is no lead in the paint coating the outside. Lead poisoning is most often caused by eating lead contained in bits of old paint or in dirt that has been contaminated by lead, by breathing lead in the air, or by drinking water from pipes lined or soldered with lead.

Lead was an allowable ingredient in house paint before 1977, and therefore may be present on the walls, doorjambs and window frames of many older homes. As the paint ages, it chips, peels and comes off in the form of dust. Toddlers are tempted by such bite-sized pieces and will taste or eat them out of curiosity. Even if they don't intentionally eat the material, the dust can get on their hands and into their food. Sometimes the lead-containing finish has been covered over with layers of newer, safer paints. This can give a false sense of reassurance, however, because the underlying paint may still chip or peel off with the newer layers and fall into the hands of toddlers.

As the child continues consuming lead, it accumulates in his body. Although it may not be noticeable for some time, lead poisoning ultimately will affect many of the organs in the body, including the brain. Slight lead poisoning can cause mild learning disabilities. More severe lead poisoning may produce permanent mental and physical retardation. Lead also can cause stomach and intestinal problems, anemia, hearing loss and even short stature.

Children who have lead poisoning often show no symptoms until they reach school age, when they begin to have difficulty keeping up with class work. Some may even seem overly active, due to the effects of the lead. For this reason, the only sure way to know if your child has been exposed to excessive lead is to have him tested annually during these early years, particularly if he is in high-risk groups.

To do this, your pediatrician will test your child's blood. Lead screening tests use either a small amount of blood from a finger prick or a larger sample of blood from a vein in the arm. These tests measure the amount of lead in the blood.

How can you determine if you child should be screened for lead poisoning? If you can answer "yes" to any of the following questions, especially numbers 1, 2 and 3, your child may need to be screened for lead. Talk to your pediatrician about lead screening for your child.

  1. Does your child live in or regularly visit a house that was built before 1950? This includes a home child care center or the home of a relative.
  2. Does your child live in or regularly visit a house built before 1978 that has been remodeled in the last six months? Are there any plans to remodel?
  3. Does your child have a brother, sister, housemate or playmate who is being treated for lead poisoning?
  4. Have you ever been told that your child has high levels of lead in his or her blood or lead poisoning?
  5. Does your child live with an adult whose job or hobby involves exposure to lead?
  6. Does your child live near an active lead smelter, battery recycling plant or other industry likely to release lead into the environment?
  7. Does your child live within one block of a major highway or busy street?
  8. Do you use hot tap water for cooking or drinking?
  9. Has your child ever been given home remedies (azarcon


Did you know that the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends you never pretend a child's medicine is candy? The Academy also suggests that you take your own medicine out of the sight of your child. These precautions can help reduce a child's temptation to experiment.

Discovery Health Channel Medem American Academy of Pediatrics The Nemours Foundation