March 14, 2001
Lead an environmental threat to children;
March 19-25 is National Poison Prevention Week
Approximately four percent of children screened in Houston for lead poisoning have blood lead levels capable of causing harmful effects, according to the latest data compiled by the Houston Department of Health and Human Services (HDHHS).
Data from HDHHS’ fiscal year 2000 shows that 250 of the more than 8,300 children screened had blood lead concentration equal to or greater than 10 micrograms per deciliter, the lowest level associated with adverse effects on a child.
The week of March 19-25 is recognized nationally as National Poison Prevention Week. HDHHS offers free lead screenings to children between six months and 6 years of age at all its health centers.
"Elevated blood lead levels in children can result in learning disabilities, behavioral problems, mental retardation, speech and language handicaps and even brain damage," said Dr. Luther Harrell, Chief Physician with HDHHS’ Division of Community and Personal Health Services. Seizures, coma and even death are possible at extremely high levels such as 70 micrograms per deciliter or higher.
Children who need to be under a doctor’s care include those with blood lead levels of 20 micrograms per deciliter or higher and those with a range between 15 and 19 micrograms per deciliter over a period of three months. A blood lead test is the only method able to determine lead poisoning.
Symptoms include headaches, irritability, anemia, wight loss, hyperactivity, poor attention span, muscle aches and abdominal pain. However, children usually do not show lead poisoning symptoms for several years.
A high concentration of lead-poisoned children in Houston live in neighborhoods in the inner city, an area more likely to contain older homes with lead-based paint, the most significant source of lead exposure.
Houston zip codes where children appear to be at much higher risk for lead poisoning are 77003, 77004, 77007, 77009, 77011, 77019, 77026, 77028, 77020 and 77023. They comprise inner-city neighborhoods to the west, north, northeast, east and south of downtown.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that more than 80 percent of all homes built before 1978 in the United States have lead-based paint in them. Houses built before 1950 pose the greatest hazard to children because they are much more likely to contain lead-based paint than newer homes. The older the house, the more likely it is to contain lead-based paint and a higher concentration of lead in the paint.
As lead-based paint in older homes deteriorates, it creates dust as well as paint chips which can be eaten by young children, especially those between one and three years of age who frequently pick up objects and put them in their mouths. Renovation or remodeling can disturb lead paint. Also, a young child can easily chew on painted surfaces such as window sills and door frames in a lead-exposed home.
Other potential sources of lead exposure are contaminated soil, lead-based ceramics used for cooking, eating or drinking, traditional home remedies, operating or abandoned industrial sites and smelters, dust on parents’ clothes contaminated at the workplace or during hobbies, mini blinds and cosmetics containing lead.
The main treatment for lead poisoning is to stop the exposure. Removing the lead from a child’s environment helps to ensure a sustained decline in blood-lead levels. In some cases, medications are used to lower elevated blood-lead levels.
The longer children are exposed to lead, the greater the likelihood that they will sustain damage to the their health. Although particularly harmful to the developing brain and nervous system of fetuses and young children, lead can harm virtually every system in the human body. It can damage the kidneys, the nervous system and the reproductive system and cause high blood pressure.