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Lead Poisoning in Children

5 min read


As responsible parents, we must keep our children as safe as possible. However, at times, it can get quite overwhelming because as children are growing up, they begin to experience the environment and the things close to them in their way. This exploratory behavior often makes them vulnerable to a lot of threats, one of them being the exposure to harmful chemical elements. Lead is one such metal that can inflict both short-term as well as long-term damage.
Prolonged exposure to lead over months or years can lead to its accumulation inside the body resulting in lead poisoning. Lead can enter the body when someone either ingests it unknowingly or when one breathes in the air in a toxic setting. This article explores the sources of lead exposure, symptoms of lead poisoning and prevention methods for the same.

Why Is Lead Toxic?

The reason why lead is toxic is that it tends to mask as other useful metals like calcium, iron, zinc, etc. in various biochemical reactions that take place inside the body and severely interferes with the production of blood cells in the body. As we all know, calcium is integral to the building of strong bones, muscles and teeth and also for the proper functioning of nerves, kidney and even the brain. Lead can hamper calcium production leading to development delays, diminished memory to name a few. High levels of lead in the body can even lead to organ failure of the brain, kidney, etc.
Although lead toxicity can affect adults and children alike, young children (especially those below 6 years) are at a greater risk. Lead can pose serious health risks to even unborn babies. Hence, it may be advisable for pregnant women to consider lead screening, after consultation with their doctors and if they feel that they run the risks of lead exposure.

Sources of lead poisoning in children

Sources of lead poisoning

Sources of lead poisoning

It is not difficult to understand the sources of lead exposure in adults as arising either as an occupational hazard or due to the pursuit of certain types of hobbies. However, for a child, there are still many ways in which lead can find its way into the body and most of us are unaware of it. Especially, for parents living in an old home, something as trivial as tap water, window frames, furniture may end up as unusual sources.
Listed below are some sources that may lead to high lead levels in children.

  • Household dust contaminated with lead
  • Paint chips from old homes, or while getting your house painted or distempered
  • Soil that is contaminated with lead that can be mouthed by the child
  • Activities like pottery in which ceramic is used with lead coating
  • Toys, cosmetics containing traces of lead in the material they are made from
  • Food, especially imported ones, stored in containers with a lead coating
  • Other consumer products like batteries, inks, etc.

Symptoms of Lead Poisoning

Lead poisoning symptoms tend to vary depending on several factors like the victim’s age, the duration, and extent of exposure. Acute lead poisoning happens when there is exposure to very high levels of lead and is more uncommon. Chronic poisoning, on the other hand, is the result of prolonged exposure to low lead levels and hence its symptoms do not appear instantly and as obviously as with typical ailments. Even in the absence of acute symptoms, excessive build-up of lead in the body can severely hamper a child’s development and cause long-term cognitive and neurological issues.
Acute symptoms – require immediate medical attention

  • Encephalopathy
  • Vomiting
  • Severe abdominal pain
  • Muscle weakness
  • Seizures that can quickly lead to coma and even death

Chronic symptoms – Physical

  • Headaches and abdominal pain
  • Weight loss
  • Constipation
  • Anemia due to the low iron in the blood
  • Taste of metallic flavor for no reason
  • Loss of appetite
  • Tingling feeling in arms or feet
  • Fatigue
  • Lack of coordination among muscles
  • Issues in the development of bone structure
  • Memory loss
  • Problems in the functioning of the kidney
  • Seizure or unconsciousness

Chronic symptoms – Behavioral

  • Persistent irritation and aggressiveness
  • Poor growth
  • Difficulty in learning and focusing, in other words, diminished cognition
  • Poor IQ

In case a child is having any of the aforementioned symptoms and you doubt that the child must have come in contact with lead, do not wait for long to seek medical treatment. The doctor will conduct blood tests and search for the presence of lead in the child’s blood. Also, the doctor might recommend regular check-ups if the child is living in a high-risk area.

How to interpret lead levels in blood?

It is quite difficult to set a benchmark for lead poisoning because it is invariably harmful to a child. But the good news is that a quick prick of the finger and testing the blood helps in identifying the lead level. The latter is typically measured in micrograms/decilitre (mcg/dL). Any lead level in blood measuring more than 5 mcg/dL is considered unsafe in terms of exposure and poisoning. But since the child could be constantly exposed and the levels could rise over time, periodic testing is the key to identify lead poisoning. If the blood lead level goes higher then 45mcg/dL, then it calls for swift action and treatment.

How is lead poisoning treated?

Lead Poisoning - Treatment

Lead Poisoning – Treatment

“Prevention is better than cure” is a proverb that perfectly fits the bill in the case of lead poisoning. Environmental and dietary changes can go a long way in reducing lead exposure levels as well as the intensity of lead accumulation in the body. If the environment a family stays in has a potential for elevating the lead levels in the body, then opt for an exhaustive program of detection and elimination of the sources that may contribute to the same. Even if elimination is not possible, it is vital to contain the chances of contamination.
As mentioned in the previous section, treatment for lead poisoning is a necessity if the lead level in your child’s body is 45 mg/dL or more. Chelation therapy is usually the first that a doctor would recommend in such cases. It works by injecting medicine to circulate inside the body thereby eliminating toxins.  Furthermore, the doctor would also recommend a good diet plan for your child containing vital nutrients like Vitamin C, calcium, and iron. Nevertheless, for treatment to work successfully, minimizing the child’s exposure to lead sources, even complete elimination if possible, would go a long way.

How to protect Your Child from Lead Poisoning

First of all, take help from a professional to check your home in general and even sources like tap water periodically for lead levels. If you are living in a rented house, then you can consult with your landlord for the changes that you might need to diminish the chances of lead accumulation in your child. Some other ways are listed below:

  • Remove any item in your house which might have the presence of lead
  • Replace the toys in which the paint is coming off
  • Instruct your child not to play nearby any repair site till everything is cleaned up
  • Keep the child away from any old door and window frames
  • Stop your child from playing in old or worn-out buildings or the surrounding soil
  • Ensure that surfaces at home are often cleaned
  • Educate the child to always wash hands regularly, particularly before eating

Lead is a highly toxic metal and presents a serious health hazard to children. Understanding the sources of lead exposure, eliminating risk factors and availing timely medical consultation and treatment in high-risk cases would go a long way in curtailing the long-term impact that leads poisoning can cause.

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