For more than 100 years, society has known that lead is very damaging to young children. It is frustrating that we still expose our most vulnerable to this poison, especially because it is completely preventable.
According to the CDC, lead poisoning can cause:
Nervous system damage
A simple blood test can determine lead levels, but it is not so simple to treat. When families bring lead-poisoned children to me, they want a magic pill “to take the lead out.” While I often prescribe a chelator (a medicine to grab the lead inside the patient and carry it out in the urine), that’s just a small part of the treatment.
The bigger challenge is to find the source of exposure and stop it. That often means more handwashing, more housekeeping, and renovations on the home to eliminate lead paint or other lead sources.
Lead can sometimes be found in unlikely places, including:
Homes built before 1978
Toys and toy jewelry
Lead exposure can mean public health (or even privately-funded) investigations of homes, daycares, playgrounds, or other locations to find the source. Sometimes it means temporary or permanent relocation. Stopping lead exposure is very important, but it often takes a lot of work which can take weeks or months. That’s very frustrating to physicians like me and, especially, to the parents who expect a quick fix – not a prolonged and drastic lifestyle change.
Due to funding, many jurisdictions can no longer send public health inspectors to find the source of exposure for every lead-poisoned child and, increasingly, families have to hire their own private inspectors. Some families buy do-it-yourself lead test kits and try to do these inspections themselves.
The worst frustrations come from making gradual but consistent improvements in a child’s blood lead levels, but seeing no significant change in the child’s brain function, in the cases where dysfunction is already apparent. More than any of the above problems, this really shows the need to prevent lead poisoning before it happens.
Marcel J. Casavant, MD, is Division Chief of Toxicology at Nationwide Children’s Hospital and a Clinical Professor of Pediatrics and Emergency Medicine at The Ohio State University College of Medicine and a Clinical Professor in the College of Pharmacy.
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