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Old paint may pose lead risk for kids

Copyright 2002 President Fellows Harvard College behalf HMS MediServices Phoby LizGreen HMS MediServices Anthony Leader Komaroff MD Harvard Health Publications

Copyright 2002 President and Fellows of Harvard College on behalf of HMS Media Services, Photo by Liza Green, HMS Media Services, Anthony Leader Komaroff, MD, Harvard Health Publications

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Updated: December 2, 2012 7:05AM

Dear Doctor K: What are the risks of lead poisoning? How can we protect our daughter from it?

Dear Reader: Lead is poison. Although major strides have been made in the past 50 years, lead poisoning is unfortunately still a problem. All of us are exposed to lead, but kids are most vulnerable to it.

We used to allow lead in paint, and there was a lot of it in paint 60 years ago. The lead content was reduced for several decades, and then lead was eliminated completely from paint in the mid-1970s.

Unfortunately, older homes that were painted with lead-containing paint still pose a risk. If the paint peels, lead gets into house dust. Some young kids like to lick paint chips; if it’s old paint, lead gets into their body. If outdoor paint peels, the ground around the base of the house where kids play is contaminated.

Elevated lead levels in the body can cause developmental delays, behavioral problems, fatigue, headaches, abdominal pain, anemia, seizures and even coma. The first signs of lead poisoning may not appear until school age. The cognitive and behavioral changes caused by lead are not reversible. That’s why early detection is so important: It can prevent these later problems. All children should be screened for lead poisoning with a simple blood test, starting at 6 months of age. If the test is positive, the local public health department then assists in discovering what the source of the child’s lead exposure is. And if one child is positive, the other kids should be tested too.

Once the source of lead exposure is removed, a child’s body eventually will get rid of the lead. Some children may need to take a drug that helps remove lead. Children with brief, low-level exposures usually recover completely.

The best way to prevent lead poisoning is to remove all sources of lead. To check if your home has lead paint, purchase a lead test kit, or have a certified inspector test your home.

If your home does contain lead-based paint, hire a certified contractor to remove it. The local public health department can help you to find qualified contractors. Don’t try removing the paint yourself: Unless the job is done absolutely correctly, paint removal can worsen the problem.

Adults who work in certain industries, including some types of construction, may be exposed to lead on the job. Young children can be exposed when their parents carry lead dust home on their clothes and shoes. Before coming home, shower and change your clothes, and launder your clothes separately from those of the rest of the family.

Write to Dr. Komaroff at

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