Lead Exposure in Children: What You Need to Know

Recent changes to lead toxicity screening guidelines on the national level from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and local environmental assessments have brought increased attention to the signs, symptoms and potential risk factors for lead exposure in children.

And Columbus Regional Health pediatricians say that's a good thing. 

According to Dr. Kathryn McAleese, M.D., pediatrician at Columbus Pediatrics, parental and guardian awareness and education is key. The more parents ask, learn and know about their child's health and any potential health and wellness risks, the better equipped they and the child's physician are to keeping them healthy. Lead exposure is a good example. Even low levels of lead in blood have been shown to affect IQ, ability to pay attention and academic achievement. However, unlike other pediatric illnesses, especially those that are environmentally driven, lead poisoning can be difficult to detect on the surface. We'll go over some of the signs and symptoms of lead poisoning below but rest assured: the good news is, your pediatrician (especially if he or she is a provider with Columbus Regional Health) is likely testing and screening your child for lead exposure and risk on a routine basis.

"We want our patients and the community to know that if you're a patient of any Columbus Regional Health provider, your child is getting screened for lead," said Dr. McAleese. "And if you're not a patient of ours, or you're not sure, we want parents to ask. Ask your provider and find out and if they're not, request a lead screening be done on your child."

Practices within the Columbus Regional Health network follow strict guidelines put out by the American Academy of Pediatrics and the CDC, which outlines vaccination, immunization and screening benchmarks for children ages 0 to 18 and young adults.

"We test each child at least twice -- at age 1 and then again at 2 years -- and in between if they happen to miss one of those scheduled well check appointments," said Stormy Wilson, practice manager at Columbus Pediatrics. 

A lead screening is done with a blood test, which involves a finger prick, and the results are available before the patient leaves the appointment.  Currently, the CDC blood level of concern is 5 micrograms per deciliter of lead in blood for children. At Columbus Pediatrics, children who test at 3 micrograms per deciliter or higher are flagged as a concern, and asked to receive additional testing, which is a more thorough blood test conducted at the Columbus Regional Health outpatient laboratory. Results that come back at or higher are reported to the Bartholomew County Health Department.

In toddlers and older children, nurses and physicians monitor ongoing risk by asking questions related to the child's living environment.

"That's why we routinely ask if the family has moved or recently done any home renovation," said Dr. McAleese. "If they receive care outside of the home, we ask where, because we know about the standards that local daycares or schools are held to."

What are the symptoms?

Some children have no signs of being sick. Others may have symptoms such as:

  • headaches
  • behavioral problems and trouble concentrating
  • loss of appetite
  • weight loss
  • nausea and vomiting
  • constipation
  • a metallic taste in the mouth
  • feeling tired
  • muscle and joint weakness
  • looking pale

How is it treated?

 A child with a small amount of lead often can be treated easily. As the body naturally gets rid of the lead, the level of lead in the blood falls. A healthy diet and lifestyle is also important. Calcium, iron, and vitamin C are important parts of a healthy diet and also help to decrease the amount of lead the body absorbs.

The most important part is preventing or fixing what caused the exposure. For more information on risk factors and ways you can protect your family, visit the thorough reference guide provided by American Academy of Pediatrics. If you are concerned about potential lead in your home, contact your local health department and request an environmental test.

Your child's pediatrician would be happy to provide additional information and answer any questions or concerns.

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