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Lessons Learned: Children and Lead Exposure

When I took our daughter Ellie to the pediatrician for her one-year-old check-up, the doctor asked me if I’d like to have her blood drawn to test her lead level. With the exception of the news articles I had seen about the water crisis in Flint, I knew pretty much nothing about lead poisoning in children. The doctor didn’t seem very concerned and she had already been poked several times during that visit, so I politely declined, promising to make a follow-up appointment. Fast forward to a year later. We are at her two-year old appointment and the doctor asks the same question. This time, I ask a few more questions and she advises that we get the test because we live in a house built before the 1970’s when lead paint became a thing of the past. So, I went ahead and had it done, truly believing that we had nothing to worry about. We live in a nice neighborhood. With the exception of the stray cold, Ellie is a remarkably healthy child. I never dreamed that two days later, my doctor would call to tell me that Ellie’s lead levels were of concern.

When doctors check children’s lead levels, they come back with a number that represents the micrograms per decimeter of lead in their blood. For those of us who aren’t in the medical field, the magic number defined by the CDC is 5. Anything below a 5 is of little concern, but children with a level 5 or above are considered to have elevated levels. Ellie’s initial level was right at a 5. Upon finding this out, my husband and I did what any reasonable, level-headed first time parent would do. We panicked. We looked at every website we could find. We called the city and had an inspector come to the house. We had our water tested. We replanted some of our yard. We got quotes for replacing the carpeting in our home.

If I’m really being honest, a lot of the panic came from a place of guilt. Why had I not had her tested when she was one? My husband has been refinishing the paint on the outside of our home for years without ever considering that lead dust could be coating our backyard. Like most people, we just weren’t informed of the dangers and sources of lead. As a parent, you take every opportunity to protect your children from danger, but what if you don’t even know the danger is there?

Through this entire ordeal, I’ve learned a lot about the dangers of lead and children. I am in no way a medical professional, but below is a list of some things I’ve learned through this experience. My hope is that it might help other parents who are as unaware as I was before they receive a call like we did.

-One of the simplest strategies for preventing lead from entering your home and your children is to adopt the habit of always taking shoes off at the door and washing hands as soon as you come inside and before eating.

– It is standard in most medical practices to test children’s lead levels at age 1 and at age 2, but parents can request to have their child’s levels checked at any time. Once children begin putting everything in their mouth, they become more susceptible, so if you feel there are risks, don’t hesitate to ask to have your child checked even before their first birthday.  

– Anyone living in a house built before the late 1970’s needs to be particularly aware of any lead paint that may exist in or outside of their home. Government agencies recommend that parents check for any painted surfaces that may be chipping and stabilize them by painting over them or putting tape over them. Beware of sanding chipping paint as this may release dust into your home.

– Be aware of any toys or furniture in your home that may have paint prior to the late 1970’s or that was made in another country as lead standards may not be the same as American health standards. Our daughter chews on the bedrail of her painted crib, so we purchased covers for it just to be safe.

– The lead left by renovations may be impossible to detect by the human eye and may remain in soil or carpet for years to come. Owners of older homes should be aware of risks when doing renovations and take precautions or hire professionals who know how to contain and clean up lead do renovations.

– If you’re concerned about lead in your water, check your county’s website to see how to have your water tested. We live in Montgomery County and the process was so simple and affordable. Don’t trust that the lead levels in your water match those listed on your city’s report.

It is certainly our hope that by educating ourselves, being more aware of possible lead sources and making necessary changes, we might better be able to protect our children from the dangers of lead. If you’re concerned, I would encourage you to talk to your child’s doctor and look at available education materials from the CDC and EPA.

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