Lead is a naturally occurring metal that is found in the Earths crust. Most lead is not present as a simple element, but in combination with other elements that form compounds. One of the properties of metallic lead is its ability to protect other surfaces from corrosion. Because of this property, lead is found in storage batteries used in cars, in pipes and in ammunition. It is also used as a pigment in paints dyes and ceramic glazes.
The amount of lead allowed in these products is regulated and this amount continues to be reduced because of the harmful effect on humans and animals. The dangers of exposure to lead have been recognized since 100 B.C.
Currently experts agree that as with second hand smoke there is no safe level of exposure to lead. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has determined that lead is a probable carcinogenic. A carcinogenic substance is one that causes cancer in humans. Lead overexposure is the leading cause of illness in the workplace and it is a major public health risk especially for young children.
According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) more than 310,000 children between the ages of one and five have lead blood levels significantly high enough to cause harm.
Lead poisoning affects every system in the body and since there may be no obvious symptoms it can go undetected. Exposure to lead can cause damage to the central nervous system, to the kidneys and to the reproductive system. Low-level exposure can result in learning disabilities, impaired intelligence, hearing and growth. At high levels it can cause coma, convulsion and death.
Because lead is a naturally occurring metal it may be present in our food and water supply and in the air we breathe. However the most dangerous concentrations come from old paint, inner city pollution and soil especially along highways.
The leading cause of lead exposure in children is caused by lead in paint. It is estimated that over 83 percent of the houses built before 1978 contain lead based paint with the highest concentration of lead found in homes built before 1950. Infants and toddlers ingest the flaking paint chips or breathe in lead dust.
Children are adversely affected by lead, sometimes by as much as 50 percent more than adults, for several reasons. They are undergoing rapid development of their systems and they spend a significant amount of time crawling or playing on the floor and ground where they come in contact with lead paint chips or dust.
If your young child spends most of his or her time in an older home, talk to your health care provider about testing for elevated blood lead levels (BLL). While there is medication to treat lead poisoning the best defense is to eliminate lead from a childs environment.
The Franklin County Health Department can provide you with information on environmental lead and ways to protect your family. For more information call the Community Health Education Team.
Debbie Howes Fleming is the health education director with the Franklin County Health Department. For more information about column topics or to contact her or the FCHD Community Health Education team, call 564-5559.