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Lead poisoning: How the Flint water crisis is bringing an old problem back into view

March 18, 2016

You may have seen the ongoing news coverage of the crisis in Flint, Michigan where the city’s water supply has exposed potentially tens of thousands of people to toxic levels of lead. Children are especially vulnerable to lead exposure, and in fact it was a pediatrician, Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, who was one of the first to publicly call for city and state officials to address water safety concerns after finding high levels of lead in several children. 

See the timeline of events leading to Flint’s water crisis, here

While we may not live in Flint, Michigan, the concerns over lead poisoning are valid ones. This unfortunate incident can serve us well as a reminder to be aware of the dangers that lead exposure poses, especially for our children. 

Why lead exposure is a concern, especially for children and pregnant women

Lead is a naturally occurring element that originates from the earth’s crust, but most of the lead that has entered our immediate environment comes from human activities such as the use of fossil fuels, some types of industrial facilities, and incorporation of lead into gasoline, paint, pipes and other plumbing materials, ceramics, batteries, ammunition and cosmetics. 

Exposure to lead may occur by consuming food or water contaminated with lead or from dishes that are made with lead in them. Spending time in areas where lead paint is chipping, peeling or deteriorating may cause a person to unknowingly breathe in dust that contains lead. Lead dust generally finds its way into soil, so soil may contain lead in certain areas, especially where renovation of old buildings has occurred. Certain hobbies such as making stained-glass or shooting weapons at a gun range, even fishing with lead weights can each present an opportunity for lead exposure. And although the practice of using lead-based paints on children’s toys no longer occurs in the U.S., some toys or children’s jewelry made in other countries also contain lead. 

Lead can affect nearly every organ in the body. In adults, lead exposure can contribute to cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, poor kidney function and reproductive problems. Children are particularly vulnerable to the effects of lead, however, because their growing bodies absorb more lead than an adult, and their developing brain and nervous system are more sensitive to its detrimental effects. Since young children are more prone to putting things in their mouth, they may be particularly susceptible to environmental sources of lead such as dust and soil.

Even small amounts of lead in a child’s body can cause behavior and learning problems, hyperactivity, lower IQ, delayed growth, hearing problems or anemia. In rare cases of ingestion of a large amount of lead, seizures, coma or death can occur. In pregnant women, lead exposure can lead to reduced growth of the baby and premature delivery.

What you can do to protect your family

While the problems listed above are enough to send anyone into a panic, remember that lead poisoning is still an uncommon occurrence. There are also practical ways to minimize lead exposure to prevent unwanted health effects. 

The most common source of high-quantity lead exposure in children is due to exposure to lead-based paint. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), approximately 74% of homes in the U.S. that were built prior to 1980 contain lead-based paint. Lead poisoning often occurs when there is renovation in these older homes and lead becomes prevalent in the dust or surrounding soil or when a child ingests chips of peeling paint in or on these homes built before 1980. Lead-based paints are still used on painted steel structures such as bridges and expressways which, while presenting risks to workers, also raises concern for children in the vicinity when construction or maintenance of these structures occur. 

The likelihood of lead-contaminated drinking water has been greatly reduced over the last several decades. However, it can happen when there are lead pipes inside the house or leading to the house, lead solder used to connect the pipes, or deterioration of older fixtures that may contain lead. What appears to have happened in Flint, Michigan is when authorities switched the city’s water supply from its Detroit source to the Flint River, proper steps to control corrosion were not taken and the corrosion allowed lead to leach from the pipes within the city’s water system. 

Lead is tasteless, colorless and without smell. Testing is the only way to know whether your water contains high levels of lead. You may have a private company test the water in your home, and you can also contact your local water provider to receive a water quality report for your area. (See this example from the Orlando Utilities Commission.) 

Here are some other steps you can take to reduce exposure to lead:

  • Read this lead poisoning home checklist to determine your family’s risk at home or on the job. This is especially important if your home was built before 1978. 
  • Contact your local health department about testing paint and dust from your home for lead.
  • Children should not have access to peeling paint or surfaces with lead paint that can be chewed. 
  • In older homes with lead-based paint, be sure to wet-mop your floors and wet-wipe painted doors and windowsills regularly as dust is a frequent cause of lead exposure. 
  • Children and pregnant women should not be present in a home that was built before 1978 and undergoing renovation.
  • Recognize that improperly fired ceramic ware or imported pottery may be a source of lead contamination. Don’t store food in these containers or eat from them.
  • Don’t store canned food in the can once it has been opened (even if it’s in the refrigerator). Although lead soldering has been restricted in the U.S., canned goods imported from other countries may be lead-soldered cans. Don’t store imported canned goods (especially side-seamed, lead-soldered cans) for more than a year, even if they are unopened. 
  • Avoid buying toys that are made in other countries or passing down antique toys to small children. Although lead has been banned in children’s toys in the U.S. since 1978, some toys made outside the U.S. may contain lead in the paint or plastic.
  • Know that some imported candies (namely those from Mexico) have been shown to contain lead in the candy, in the wrappers, and in the ink printed on the wrappers.
  • Don’t allow your children to wear or play with jewelry made of lead. Although it isn’t harmful to wear this inexpensive play jewelry, it could be very harmful to the child if swallowed. 
  • Require family and visitors to remove their shoes prior to entering the home to minimize the amount of lead-contaminated soil brought into the home. This is especially important in areas where peeling paint or home renovation has occurred. 

For more in-depth information on lead exposure, visit:

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

The Environmental Protection Agency

The American Academy of Pediatrics

If you’re concerned that your child may have been exposed to lead, contact your pediatrician right away.