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Column originally published Aug 28, 2007

Lead Poisoning Should Be Taken Seriously

Question: I am concerned about our grandson. He is fifteen-months-old, and he puts everything in his mouth. Some of the toys that I gave him on his birthday was recalled last week by the manufacturer because of lead in the paint. I worry that he may have been poisoned already. I remember that when I was growing up, my younger brother had lead poisoning because he chewed on the paint on his crib. He was very sick and required hospitalization. I have read on the Internet that lead can cause brain damage and hyperactivity. I wonder whether I should tell my daughter to get our grandson tested for lead poisoning.


Your question is very timely.  Many parents must be worried about these recalls of toys manufactured in China.  Let me explain to other readers about the danger of lead in our environment before answering your question.

Lead is found in small quantities in our natural environment.  It has been used for centuries in items like leaded glass and lead-glazed ceramic ware.  As a result of exposure to digging in lead mines and subsequent manufacturing process, lead poisoning has been recorded in human history for more than 2000 years.

Since the Industrial Revolution, use of lead has greatly increased, especially in leaded gasoline (lead improves the performance of some engines), paints, plumbing (leaded water pipes and solder for pipes), and as sealant for tin cans.  As a result, lead is present in much larger quantity in our environment.

For many years, doctors did not recognize the harmful effects of lead because most children and adults have no obvious symptom until the poisoning is severe.  Those with severe lead poisoning can have headaches, lack of energy, confusion, convulsions, coma, and finally death.  Other vague symptoms include loss of appetite, abdominal pain, vomiting, and constipation.

The real danger of lead was not recognized until 20 to 30 years ago, when researchers found that over 80 percent of young children in United States have unsafe levels of lead in their blood.  They have also found that children who have higher levels of lead tend to have lower IQ.  IQ, or intelligent quotient, is a measure of a person’s intelligence determined by some standard tests.  It appears that the presence of lead in the body affects the development of a child’s brain, as well as interfering with the activity of several brain chemicals.  Lead can also damage the kidneys and red blood cells.

Once lead was recognized as a serious health problem for children, governments in Canada and United States started phasing out the use of lead in gasoline, and outlawed leaded paint as well as lead in pipes and cans.  This has markedly reduced the amount of lead added to our environment.

However, there is still a lot of lead in old leaded paint in homes that were built before 1970s.  As the paint deteriorates, it breaks down into dust and contaminates the indoor environment.  Young children play close to the floor; their hands and toys are covered with dust, and they put everything in their mouth.  As a result, young children living in older homes have a higher chance of lead poisoning than those living in newer homes.

Leaded paint also has a sweet taste.  That is why some children like to chew on old paint present on cribs and window sill.  Your brother developed severe lead poisoning because he swallowed a lot of lead in the paint.

Some older homes still have leaded pipes, or have pipe joints soldered with lead-containing material.  The lead can leak into water, especially if the water has been sitting in the pipes for a while.  That is the reason why it is advisable for people living in these homes to flush their pipes with cold water for a few minutes in the morning before using it as drinking water.

Because of the effort of many levels of government over the past 20 years to reduce the amount of lead in our environment, the number of children diagnosed to have lead poisoning has markedly decreased.  Once in a while, we still see children adopted from other countries with lead poisoning on arrival because of exposure to leaded gasoline or ceramic with lead-containing glaze before coming to Canada.

You should also know that there are some herbal medications imported from other countries, including Mexico and China, that can contain high levels of lead.  I have just learned that a powder called litargirio, sold as a home remedy and also used as an antiperspirant and deodorant, can contain up to 80% of lead.

The recent stream of recalls of toys manufactured in China certainly cause a great deal of concern to parents, physicians, and health officials.  Although we cannot tell whether a particular toy has excessive amount of lead in the paint or not, we have to take precaution and act accordingly.  If your grandson has toys that are being recalled, it is important to immediately remove these toys from him.

I should mention here that it is possible to reduce the absorption of lead in the intestines by making sure a child gets enough of calcium and iron in his diet.  Both of these compete with lead for absorption; therefore, if there is enough calcium and iron in the diet, it is harder for lead to be absorbed.

Since mild lead poisoning has very few symptoms, it may be worthwhile for your grandson to have a blood test to find out the lead level in his blood, whether the lead is from the dust in his home or from the toys.  Your doctor can tell you, from the result, whether there is anything to worry about or not.

Finally, I should briefly discuss about the relationship between lead and hyperactivity.  Although it has been shown that one of the symptoms of lead poisoning is hyperactivity, lead is not a common cause for children with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).  As I have explained earlier, the amount of lead in our environment has decreased in the last two decades, the number of children recognized to have ADHD has actually increased during this period of time.