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Healthy & Safe: Your family's well-being

Getting the Lead Out: How to guard against lead poisoning

If lead is present in or around your home, you won't be able to see it. Yet childhood lead poisoning is a major, but preventable, health threat.

Lead poisoning occurs when lead is inhaled or ingested. Small children are at greatest risk because their neurological systems are still developing, and they play close to the ground where contaminated dirt, dust and paint chips may lie.

High levels of lead can cause convulsions, mental retardation, paralysis, blindness and ultimately coma and death. Lower levels can result in hearing loss, hyperactivity, decreased physical growth, learning disabilities, behavior problems, headaches, stomachaches and lethargy.

Lead is most often found in the paint of homes built before 1978. As paint deteriorates, chips and dust can be inhaled or swallowed. If you suspect lead in paint, get a home test kit from a paint or hardware store. Lab analysis is more accurate but costs more. Contact the American Council of Independent Laboratories (202-887-5872) for a lab in your area.

If lead paint is flaking or peeling, removing and disposing of it may be your only option. This should be done by qualified professionals when your family is away from home. Remodeling projects involving rooms or exterior walls painted with lead paint should be avoided not only by children but also by pregnant women.

To care for walls or trim?especially window and door jambs?covered with lead-based paint in good condition, use a damp mop with a high phosphate cleaner such as trisodium phosphate, available at hardware stores. Change the water often, and don't vacuum paint chips and dust; this will only create more lead dust in the air.

Lead can seep into drinking water from old lead pipes or copper pipes with lead solder. If you suspect lead, use only cold water for drinking and cooking, and if water has been sitting overnight in the pipes, allow it to run for two minutes to clear any absorbed lead. To have your water tested, contact the county or state department of health or environment.

Lead poisoning can also come from contaminated dirt, some non-glossy vinyl mini blinds imported before July 1996 and some glazed ceramic and china dishes. For additional information on lead in china, contact the Environmental Defense Fund (800-684-3322) and ask for a copy of "What You Should Know about Lead in China Dishes."

Other precautions include:

  1. Making sure children wash their hands and faces before meals and at bedtime.
  2. Preparing meals regularly that are high in calcium and iron and low in fat.
  3. Regularly washing toys and pacifiers.

If you suspect your child may have lead poisoning, ask your pediatrician to run a blood test. With appropriate action, lead poisoning can be prevented.

?Ida M. Mahal
Freelance writer and mother of one child

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