Health & Medicine

Get the lead out: Despite fears of lead poisoning, it’s still here, but rare

Tape covers the spout and a sign warns students not to use this water fountain at Foothill Intermediate School on Wednesday, April 6, 2016 in Loma Rica, Calif. Many public water systems in California serving schools, parks, prisons and neighborhoods have found lead at levels unsafe for drinking.
Tape covers the spout and a sign warns students not to use this water fountain at Foothill Intermediate School on Wednesday, April 6, 2016 in Loma Rica, Calif. Many public water systems in California serving schools, parks, prisons and neighborhoods have found lead at levels unsafe for drinking. The Associated Press

Warnings about lead exposure, especially among young children, have been around for decades. While lead has been banned from household paints, canned foods and gasoline, it remains an undetected danger in unsuspected places.

In recent years, it’s been found in children’s toys and jewelry imported from China. It can lurk in herbal remedies and candies from foreign countries, including Mexico. In two recent Sacramento-area cases, high lead levels were found in two children – one who swallowed a lead fishing weight and another whose parents had given him traditional folk medicines.

It’s rare to find lead poisoning, especially among children, for whom blood tests for lead are recommended if they’re served by federal public health programs, such as Medicaid. But concerns don’t go away.

This week, The Sacramento Bee disclosed that a Sacramento city firing range in Mangan Park was quietly closed in late 2014 due to high levels of lead contamination that have yet to be cleaned up. That disclosure has spread uneasiness among residents of the south Sacramento neighborhood, some of whom fear they or their children may have been exposed by walking, playing or lounging on park grounds or near the firing range.

“There’s really no safe level of lead exposure,” said Dr. Robert Byrd, professor of clinical pediatrics for UC Davis Medical Center, who’s spent years working with lead-sickened patients in New York and California.

He said the incidence of lead poisoning among children in Sacramento is small, compared with California “hot spots” such as Alameda or elsewhere that have large numbers of turn-of-the-century homes containing lead-based paints.

Nationwide, all children covered by Medicaid are typically tested at 12 and 24 months, with a prick to the finger. A lead blood level at or above 5 micrograms per deciliter of blood is considered abnormal.

According to the most recent data from the state Department of Public Health, of 18,471 Californians age 6 to 21, tested in 2012, the vast majority – 99.98 percent – had lead levels below 4.5 micrograms.

While the incidence of U.S. lead poisoning has been declining over the past 30 years, it’s still a danger. Elevated lead levels can lead to multiple health issues in adults. But in children, lead exposure is especially threatening because their developing brains can be affected, stunting cognitive function and even IQ.

“The number of cases we get are small, but it is important for us to continue screening, especially for children that live in environments where there may be lead contamination,” said Dr. Olivia Kasirye, Sacramento County’s public health officer, in an email.

According to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 500,000 U.S. children have blood levels of lead above 5 micrograms. The best “cure,” say health professionals, is to find and eliminate the lead source. In severe cases, generally where lead levels are above 25 micrograms, a child can receive chelation treatment that eliminates metal poisoning in their bloodstream.

In most cases, a child’s exposure comes from peeling paint or dust from homes built before 1978, when lead-based household paint was banned in the United States. When that older paint is chipped or peeling, or when windows are opened and shut, small particles of lead can float into the atmosphere or drift outdoors.

Public health officials say low-income families, who may not have the financial means to repaint lead-covered surfaces or install new, lead-free windows, are at greatest risk of lead exposure. Children may crawl across or chew on lead-based surfaces and play in soil contaminated with lead.

Anyone living in a home built before 1978 should “assume that the paint has lead, unless tests show otherwise,” the CDC advises on its website. To avoid exposure, the CDC advises:

▪ Children and pregnant women should not stay in pre-1978 homes undergoing remodeling.

▪ Keep children away from chipping or peeling paint on walls. Temporarily use duct tape or contact paper to cover exposed spots.

▪ Wet-mop floors and wet-wipe windowsills every two to three weeks.

▪ Regularly wash children’s hands and toys, which can be contaminated from lead-based household dust or exterior soil.

▪ Take off shoes to prevent lead-contaminated soil from being brought indoors.

▪ Don’t let children play on bare dirt or near the exterior sides of homes with lead-based paints.

The CDC also states: “Shower and change clothes after finishing a task that involves working with lead-based products such as stained glass, making bullets or using a firing range.”

Generally, “it’s not a large concern in our community,” said Dr. Jonathan Ford, a UC Davis toxicologist and assistant professor of emergency medicine. He helped treat a 5-year-old who swallowed a lead fishing weight as well as the boy whose parents gave him an imported home remedy. Although both children required hospitalization, Ford emphasized those cases are a rarity, not the norm.

In the case of exposure at Sacramento’s Mangan Park and firing range, “A kid would have to play there daily for months to have enough exposure to become sick. It’s not from a one-time playing (in the park),” the toxicologist said.

However, Ford said, if the city’s testing results show high levels of lead near the firing range, parents should talk to their pediatrician about additional blood testing.

Claudia Buck: 916-321-1968, @Claudia_Buck

Common sources of lead

  • Paint. Homes, furniture, cribs, high chairs and other surfaces painted with pre-1978 house paint.
  • Dirt. Dirt along roadways (from old gasoline exhaust) or outside older homes (from chipped paint or lead dust) can contain lead.
  • Work and hobbies. Lead dust can be ingested from battery manufacturing, radiator repair, soldering, painting, demolition, scrap metal recycling, pottery and stained glass making, target shooting and casting of fishing weights.
  • Cosmetics/home remedies. Often imported from the Middle East, Southeast Asia, India or Mexico, some home remedies or cosmetics are often bright yellow or orange, with names such as alkohl, bali goli, ghasard and sindoor.
  • Handmade pottery. Lead glazes on imported tableware and pottery can leach into food and beverages if used for cooking or storing food.
  • Food/candies. Lead can be found in candy, wrappers and certain ethnic foods, such as chapulines (dried grasshoppers). Foods or candies using chili or tamarind, especially from Mexico, may contain lead.
  • Cheap jewelry. Lead has been found in inexpensive children’s jewelry sold in U.S. vending machines and in metal amulets worn for good luck or protection.
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