1 million kids may have lead poisoning: what you can do

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Three hundred thousand children in the United States are documented as having lead poisoning. Due to poor reporting practices and failure of the health care system to test all children between 1 and 5 years of age, there may be as many as 1 million children with lead poisoning in the U.S. It is an expensive and preventable public health problem.

An important thing to remember about lead poisoning is that the damage never goes away. When high levels of lead are detected in the body there is treatment to lower the level of lead, but the damage remains. There is no safe level of lead.

It particularly affects the developing brain; therefore young children and fetuses are particularly susceptible. The effects are cumulative, and even low levels can cause damage over time.

Preschool children are particularly vulnerable — as they explore the environment, they put every and anything in their mouths.

Lead damages the nervous system, cardiovascular system and kidneys, even bones and teeth. The damage can cause a decrease in I.Q., problems with attention, stunted growth, obesity, and in rare cases death.

The most common source of lead in the environment is lead paint. Lead also reaches the soil through emissions from certain industries, especially battery plants. Lead was once a legal ingredient of paint, water pipes, the solder along the seams of food cans and gasoline. It continues to be found in consumer goods such as pottery, toys and leaded crystal.

The Environmental Protection Agency and Consumer Product Safety Commission are charged with protecting the public from dangerous chemicals and hazardous products. But as we have seen with the recent peanut-contamination scandal, public agencies do not always use due vigilance. The Bush administration under-funded these agencies and, at the behest of big business and corporate America, encouraged a blind eye when it came to enforcing rules and regulations meant to safeguard the public.

Indications are that the Obama administration intends to do much better. For starters, more staff, with the backbone to enforce standards, needs to be hired.

To protect yourself and your family:

* Check for lead paint in homes when buying or renting. Federal law requires disclosure of lead in houses built before 1978. Have a home inspection when buying. Make sure there is no peeling paint. Paint and plaster in poor condition can be covered with paneling or sheetrock.

* Be sure water filters have been certified to remove lead by an independent testing agency. Run water for 10 minutes in the morning before using it for drinking or cooking, so water that has been sitting overnight, possibly leaching lead from pipes, is not used.

* Damp dust floors, wood molding and window sills frequently.

* Leave shoes at the door, wash hands when coming in from outdoors and before eating. Children should eat indoors.

* Children should play in grassy area or paved areas, not in dirt

* Wash toys frequently. Read labels on toys. Kits are available to test toys and other household items, but they vary in reliability.

* Vacuum rugs with a HEPPA-filtered vacuum sweeper.

* Wear gloves when gardening.

* Check dishes and pottery for lead content — some products manufactured outside the U.S. can contain lead.

* When installing new water faucets, make sure they are lead-free.

* Eat lots of fruits and vegetables.

* Have children tested. The early symptoms of lead poisoning, such as an upset stomach, or irritability, are easily attributed to other causes.

* Insist that agencies whose duty it is to protect the public are well funded and staffed, and that they are not privatized.

* Further, insist that polluters and landlords who ignore standards for environmental lead be prosecuted to the full extent of the law. If the law is weak, insist that politicians enact legislation to strengthen it.

Diane Mohney is a retired nurse and health care reform activist.