Lead poisoning is entirely preventable. Yet about half a million children younger than 6 years of age in the U.S. have blood lead levels a level high enough to adversely affect their intelligence, behavior and development (at least 10 micrograms per deciliter). Despite a dramatic decline in the number of children newly identified with high blood levels -- due to government regulations banning lead in many products, the abatement of lead-based paint, and increased awareness -- it is still a big problem in NYC. In the city last year, there were 5,000 new cases of children with elevated levels of lead (NYTimes says 5,000; DOH says 4,000).
The large majority or children who get lead poisoning get it from ingesting leaded paint, either by chewing on paint chips, inhaling lead dust, etc. If a house has leaded paint, any chips, dust from window frictions, etc. can be hazardous. Landlords are technically required to fix any lead hazards, but often are negligent. The city is required to step in if they do not.
Since the damage of lead poisoning is irreversible, prevention is crucial. Unfortunately, often by the time a lead hazard is noticed, it is because the child has already been found to have high levels of lead in the blood. To prevent this, all children should have their blood levels tested as required, and apartments should be screened for lead hazards.
Minority and poor children are disproportionately affected. In fact, over 90% of blood poisoned children are of color and of low-income. Many live in one of the 2,000,000 housing units built before 1960 that could have lead paint and are in deteriorating condition (leaded paint was outlawed in 1960 in NYC).
In addition to environmental factors, poor minorities often lack adequate insurance and access to health care due to financial and cultural barriers. Many people still remain unaware of the lead hazards and necessary steps to avoid them.
A recent city finding suggests that large numbers of immigrants who have lead poisoning were exposed to lead from sources other than paint. Many of them come from countries where lead exposure in endemic. Officials also point to cultural products, practices and foods that have been linked to lead contamination.
How Children Get Lead Poisoning
The main way NYC children less than 6 years of age get lead poisoning is by ingesting or inhaling paint chips or dust from older buildings.
- Primary source of exposure is from leaded paint resulting from deteriorated leaded paint and unsafe work practices during the renovation/ removal of leaded paint. 2,000,000 housing units in NYC were built prior to 1960, the year leaded paint was outlawed, and may therefore contain leaded paint
- Other sources of lead include solder in old pipes, glazed ceramic dishware, etc
- Lead can enter the body through ingestion, inhalation, or prenatally
- Lead can be ingested through dust, air, soil, water/food, blood to a fetus, and breast milk to an infant
- It primarily affects children ages 6 months to less than 6 years of age
- Children 6 months to less than 3 years of age are particularly susceptible due to frequent hand-to-mouth activity (when they may ingest lead) and their developing neurological systems
- The number of adult incidences has gone up. This increases the threat to children born to poisoned parents or children that breast feed from mothers with lead poisoning.
Lead poisoning affects virtually every system in the body; each child is effected differently. Often, it occurs with no distinctive symptoms. When present, symptoms of lead poisoning may resemble other conditions or medical problems. Even low lead levels can cause problems.
- damage the developing brain and nervous system
- impair a child's learning and behavior.
- slow growth, including decreased muscle and bone growth
- cause speech, language, or behavioral problems
- cause poor muscle coordination
- damage the kidneys, and reproductive system, and can give the child hearing problems, headaches and anemia
- At higher levels, it can cause coma, convulsions, and death
- Even low levels of lead are harmful and are associated with decreased intelligence, impaired neurobehavioral development, decreased stature and growth, and impaired hearing acuity
- Testing: most children with high blood levels exhibit no symptoms, so testing is critical. A simple blood test measures the amount of lead in the blood. Children at risk should be screened every 6 months until age 2, then once a year up until age 6. Those not at risk should be screened for exposure at one and two years of age.
- As lead poisoning is incurable, the best treatment is prevention
- Removal or abatement: a NYC landlord that has apartments built before 1960 (the year lead paint was banned in the city) in which a child under 6 resides is required by law to inspect and safely repair any lead hazards. Only a State EPA-certified lead abatement contractor can perform lead abatement. Any work that disturbs lead-based paint should be done by professionals trained to work with lead. If the landlord is not doing his part, the city is supposed to step in to fix the problem.
- Test children for lead levels in blood
- Make sure your children are not chewing on any paint-covered surfaces such as cribs, playpens, and windowsills
- Wash any items (toys, pacifiers) that children put in their mouths. Their hads should be washed often, especially before they eat or before they go to sleep.
- Clean all dusty places (floors, windowsills, furniture) with a wet mop or wet cloth. Avoid vacuums: they will only spread the dust.
- Diet: a healthy diet will help prevent further absorption of lead. Children should eat foods rich in iron, calcium, and vitamin C such as meat, broccoli, spinach, cheese, milk and citrus fruits. They should have 3 meals a day and healthy snacks. Children over two years of age should eat a lowfat diet.
- Water: Cold tap water should be used for drinking, cooking, or making baby formula, as hot tap water may contain more lead.
There is no cure for lead poisoning. Treatment can range from changes in your diet to medications or a hospital stay. Some medicines can remove some lead from a child's body.
For More Information
The Children's Hospital at Montefiore
New York City Department of Health
The American Academy of Pediatrics
Keeping Kids Healthy
Prevention and Treatment
To file a complaint with the City if your landlord has not responded to complaints about a lead hazard:
NYC Dept. of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD)
To file a complaint if your child has already been lead poisoned:
NYC Dept. of Health's Lead Poisoning Prevention Program
For prevention or treatment of lead poisoning:
The Lead Program at the Children's Hospital at Montefiore
To find a qualified person to test for or remove lead from the home:
National Center for Healthy Housing
A NYC advocacy group working for stricter lead laws:
New York City Coalition to End Lead Poisoning (NYCCELP)
Phone: 212-543-0260 Ext. 204
Alliance for Healthy Homes
An organization working to protect children from lead and other environmental health hazards