According to an assessment by the Virginia Department of Health Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention Program, the risk exposure to lead is dangerously high in many rural and urban areas of Southwest and Southside Virginia. Courtesy of Virginia Department of Health.
According to an assessment by the Virginia Department of Health Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention Program, the risk exposure to lead is dangerously high in many rural and urban areas of Southwest and Southside Virginia. Courtesy of Virginia Department of Health.

Childhood lead poisoning — not an everyday topic. Until it becomes an issue like it did in Flint, Michigan. The Flint water crisis brought to light rural and urban issues with lead and how high lead levels can affect a child’s ability to grow and develop.

Lead is an extremely toxic metal, and childhood lead poisoning is one of the most preventable and detectable environmental diseases. If you are reading this, it is likely that your family’s risk for exposure to lead is among the highest in the state. According to an assessment by the Virginia Department of Health Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention Program, the risk exposure to lead is dangerously high in many rural and urban areas of Southwest and Southside Virginia.

Why should you be concerned about that? 

Lead poisoning, specifically high blood lead levels, occurs when lead builds up in the body, often over months or years. The effects of moderate-to-high lead absorption cannot be reversed. Unfortunately, there are usually no symptoms until irreversible neurocognitive or developmental impacts become apparent during childhood. Higher blood lead levels can affect cognitive development, growth, maturity levels, behavioral development and can exacerbate underlying behavioral illnesses. So, the goal is to prevent lead exposure before harm occurs. We can do this by identifying, controlling, or removing hazards in a child’s environment.

The good news is that your pediatric health professionals are on the lookout for lead poisoning. We do lead blood level checks at your child’s 1- and 2-year checkups. You may not notice it because it is part of a finger stick where we test for anemia as well. In my experience, the finger stick can show high levels of lead in as many of 5% of my patients. When this happens, we will do another blood test to get a more thorough look. In most cases though, that blood test will show lower and less concerning levels.  

But that is a cautionary tale, because the tests can indicate if your child is coming into contact with lead within their environment. If this is the case, you need to do all you can to reduce or remove the sources of contamination.

While lead paint has been banned in the U.S. since 1978, it is still the primary source of lead exposure. Lead exposure is particularly common in houses or childcare centers built before 1978. These buildings may have peeling or cracking lead-based paint that children can put in their mouths, or dust from deteriorating lead paint on walls, doors, windows, and sills which children can ingest or inhale.

Particles from paint or leaded gasoline (phased out in 1996) can settle on soil and last for decades. Lead-contaminated soil is still a major problem around industrial areas, highways and in some urban settings. Soil close to the walls of older houses may also contain lead from peeling or cracking lead-based paint. 

Hence it is important to make sure children wash their hands when they come in from outside, before bedtime, and especially when you’re getting ready to eat. You should also wash off their toys periodically to remove any contaminants.

Another potential lead exposure source in older homes is lead in water because of lead solder in pipes. If you’re pregnant or planning a pregnancy, be especially careful to avoid exposure to lead. Lead in drinking water is a potential source of exposure for fetuses and formula fed infants. To be safe, have your water tested, use certified lead-free bottled water, or an NSF.org approved water filter.

Anyone employed in an industry or engaged in a hobby that has lead exposure should take precautions to avoid bringing lead into the home. It is one of the ways a parent is exposed to lead and then unwittingly exposes their children. Before you leave work or when you get home, change your clothes, take off your shoes, and wash your hands thoroughly before interacting with your kids. 

Lead poisoning can affect anyone, but babies and children under the age of 6 are most at risk because their bodies are still developing. Because their bodies are still growing, their brains and nervous systems are more sensitive to the harmful effects of lead. 

As the child of educators, I inherited a desire to help all our kids have the best possible chance of doing well academically, socially, economically, etc. Lead poisoning can rob them of those opportunities before they even get a chance, but we can prevent that. 

Dr. Percita Ellis, MD, a board-certified pediatric physician with nearly 40 years of experience providing...