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Discovery DiscoveryOctober 2000

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For Health

Protect Children from Lead Exposure


by Patricia Butterfield and Laura Larsson

Every once in a while, health-care providers get their world turned upside down by new scientific information. Such is the case with children and lead exposure. Although health problems have been linked to lead for centuries, most of this information was obtained from lead poisoning situations in which a person ate or inhaled extremely high doses of lead. There was much less concern about exposure to low doses over a child's life.

However, research conducted in the 1970s and 80s demonstrated that children exposed to low doses of lead were, on average, more likely to be anemic and experience neurologic problems with memory and attention than children not exposed. These studies, which yielded similar results all over the world, provided the rationale to rethink the risks.

Today much more can be done to prevent childhood lead exposure. Many pediatricians and other health providers are testing children's level of lead in their blood during regular checkups. Many Montana health departments offer testing at no cost to families. Although most children do not have high levels of lead in their blood, testing provides a good way of identifying children at risk. That way steps can be taken to identify how the child is becoming exposed and remove those exposures from the home, yard, daycare or garage.

And as health researchers have learned more about health problems linked to small doses of lead, so too have they rethought old ideas about stereotypes of lead-exposed children. When we used to think of lead-exposed children, we thought of children living in a city, living in a ghetto or crumbling apartment building where they may have been exposed to peeling paint.

But you don't have to live in Baltimore to be exposed to lead. There are plenty of opportunities to become exposed to lead in smaller communities. Some children may be exposed when their parents decide to remodel an older home. Still others become exposed through drinking water that runs through older lead pipes. Occasionally children may handle fish sinkers or ammunition containing lead enough to become exposed. Children living in communities with mining or smelting activities may become exposed through lead in the soil. Every once in a while, a child may be exposed to lead by using ceramic plates that contained a lead-based finish. Even though most ceramic artists and painters no longer use lead-based products, some imported items may still contain lead-based finishes.

One of the odd things about lead is that, even within the same house, different youngsters may have different exposures to lead. A child who is a thumb-sucker, drags around a blanket or stuffed animal outdoors, or bites their fingernails may end up with higher levels of lead than their sister or brother who has different habits.

If you have young children, consider asking your health provider or public health department if they think lead testing is a good idea for your child. For a parent, it's tough to watch your child get a finger poked to obtain the blood sample. But finding out the results of a blood lead test is important. In most children, the blood test will be normal, and that's good news. But in a few children, elevated levels of lead will be found. Health providers will help those families reduce lead risks in their home and, in the long run, that's good news too.

Pat Butterfield is a professor of nursing at MSU-Bozeman. Laura Larsson is a student nurse. This is the second in a series of health columns written by faculty in the MSU College of Nursing.

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