Does my child have lead poisoning?

Clear water running from a faucet

Many Chicago homes with new water meters were found to have spiked lead levels in their drinking water, according to a recent Chicago Tribune report. To address the possible health implications of lead in the drinking water, Icy Cade-Bell, MD, an associate professor of pediatrics and director of the Pediatric Mobile Medical Unit at the University of Chicago Medicine, answered some questions parents might be asking in the wake of this developing news story.

Who’s more likely to be affected by lead poisoning: children or adults?

Children. Generally, it’s because young children put things in their mouths. The most likely source of lead exposure is paint chips containing lead which can sometimes be found in older housing. Meanwhile, children absorb more lead through their GI tract than adults. And finally, children are more likely to be iron deficient, which increases the chance of lead absorption if you ingest it.

What can lead do to a child?

Increased levels of lead in the blood stream can affect a child’s developing brain, leading to an increased risk of cognitive delay and learning disabilities. Very high lead levels can cause seizures and even a coma. It's important to state, though, that we don't typically see very high lead levels anymore. That’s thanks to routine screening and decreased lead sources in people’s homes.

What are the symptoms of lead poisoning?

Increased lead levels can cause non-specific symptoms like irritability, vomiting, headaches, seizures, anemia, stomach pain and constipation. But most of the children we encounter with elevated lead levels have no symptoms at all. This makes routine screening very important.

How is lead poisoning treated?

Most children with elevated levels will not have lead levels that are high enough to treat with medication. We decrease the chance of worsening lead levels in children in a number of ways. This includes: checking their homes for lead sources, eliminating their exposure to those sources, talking to families about how to reduce potential exposures (for example, not using the first water that comes through the pipes), ensuring they get enough iron and calcium in their diet, treating them with iron medication if they are iron deficient, and closely monitoring the lead level to make sure it decreases. The body can eliminate low levels of lead over time. For moderately high to high levels of lead, we can use chelating medication.

Who should be tested for lead?

The Illinois Department of Public Health recommends all children under the age of 3 in the Chicago area (a high-risk area) be screened for lead. This is a routine blood test that can catch lead elevation early. Children ages 3 to 6 may be considered high risk depending on their environment. School-age children are not typically screened for lead, but if they are exposed to a known source, like drinking water that’s known to contain lead, they should be tested.

How can I prevent lead poisoning?

Prevention and early detection of lead elevation in children is very important. Elevation can be prevented by having a house inspected for lead sources before a child develops lead elevation. This is part of Illinois law. Typical sources are paint chips peeling from walls, window sills or back porches in older housing, renovation of older houses leading to exposed or aerosolized lead sources, some imported foods, glazed pottery that contains lead, or water that sits in lead-containing pipes or pipes soldered with lead.