Far fewer American kids have high lead levels than 20 years ago, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports. Crediting aggressive efforts to get lead out of paint, water, and soil, the CDC says that 1.4% of young kids had elevated levels of lead in their blood in 2004 compared with almost 9% in 1988.
Levels of at least 10 micrograms of lead per deciliter of blood are considered elevated, but the study notes that there is no known "safe" level, as even lower levels can cause problems with, among other things, attention and behavior.
Lead-based paint in older housing, which can contaminate house dust and soil, is the main source of lead exposure. Kids also can be exposed to lead via water from old plumbing pipes and from some toys (which prompted several recent toy recalls).
The researchers call the steep drop "a remarkable decline" and "a public-health success story," but stress that efforts must continue to test at-risk kids and identify and eliminate lead sources that can poison children.
More About Lead
Lead, a heavy metal found naturally in the environment and in many common consumer products, serves no purpose in the human body. But most of us have a small amount in our bodies because it's so prevalent in our surroundings.
In adults, a low level of lead exposure isn't considered dangerous. But in babies and young kids whose brains are still developing, even a small amount of lead can cause learning disabilities and behavioral problems. At higher levels, lead exposure can cause seizures, coma, and even death.
Most at risk are kids who live in housing built before 1978 (when the use of lead-containing paints in households was banned) or who are exposed to lead through a parent's occupation.
What This Means to You
Most commonly, kids get lead poisoning from lead-based paint, so the CDC recommends that pregnant women and young children avoid pre-1978 housing undergoing renovation, as such work can expose them to lead-based paints, dust, and plumbing.
- regularly wash kids' hands and toys
- wash floors and windowsills (where paint dust can collect) often
- avoid hot tap water for drinking, cooking, and making baby formula (it generally contains higher lead levels from plumbing than cold water)
Lead poisoning can produce many symptoms, including irritability, headaches, weight loss, nausea, constipation, abdominal pain, fatigue, and muscle weakness. However, many children with lead poisoning don't show any signs of it.
The best way to protect kids from lead poisoning is to make sure that your home is lead-free — ask your local health department about having your home evaluated for lead sources.
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends that all kids get tested for lead poisoning at age 1 and again at age 2.
Reviewed by: Steven Dowshen, MD
Date reviewed: March 2009
Source: "Trends in Blood Lead Levels and Blood Lead Testing Among US Children Aged 1 to 5 Years, 1988-2004." Pediatrics, March 2009.