Get The Lead Out

Exposure to lead can have devastating consequences for children. Here’s how to make sure your child stays safe.
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Illustration by Paige Stampatori

A few years back, one of my siblings took my niece to the doctor for her 1-year check-up. The squirmy tot got her blood drawn for a lead test and, to our horror, the level came back high.

My niece had no symptoms. Most children don’t, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. No level of lead is considered safe, and even low levels of lead in a child’s blood can have lasting effects. She began treatment at Cincinnati Children’s Environmental Health and Lead Clinic, which began investigating the source of the lead that had poisoned her.

The problem with this toxic metal is that when it is ingested it can damage a child’s developing brain and nervous system. Studies show it affects a child’s learning capacity, ability to pay attention, and academic achievement, according to the CDC. The effects can be permanent.

Children living in homes built before 1978 are most at risk. That’s the year the use of lead construction materials, including paint and pipes, became illegal. Cincinnati’s housing stock was mostly built before then, so children in our region run a higher risk of coming into contact with lead. That’s why Ohio requires all healthcare providers to administer blood lead tests to children at ages 1 and 2 in high-risk ZIP codes, includes much of southwest Ohio.

Make sure to ask your child’s healthcare provider, as many children are still not tested. In 2020, the most recent Ohio Department of Health data available, Hamilton County had 297 confirmed cases of childhood lead poisoning, second only to Cuyahoga County, home to Cleveland.

My niece and her family never figured out where the lead came from, even after the clinic swept the house for lead. But I’m happy to report her lead level eventually came down and she seems to be a normal 6-year-old. Still, the most important step for parents, doctors, and others is to prevent lead exposure before it occurs.

Preventing Lead Exposure

  • Don’t remodel or renovate until your home has been inspected for lead. Home repairs like sanding or scraping paint can make dangerous lead dust. Take lead abatement seriously and hire professional contractors.
  • Regularly wet-mop floors, windows, and windowsills. Household dust can be a major source of lead in homes and buildings built before 1978.
  • Leave shoes by the door or outside—especially important if someone living there works with lead or has a hobby involving lead, such as construction or shooting firearms.
  • Cover bare soil with grass, mulch, or wood chips and prevent children from playing in bare soil that may be contaminated with lead. This is particularly important if there is
    Icon by Jessica Dunham.

    construction happening nearby.

  • Some toys, especially imported toys, antique toys, and toy jewelry, may contain lead. Avoid them.
  • Keep your child’s hands clean and don’t let them gum or suck on things like purse straps, necklaces, key chains, window blinds, and vinyl records, as these things can contain lead. Wash a child’s hands, bottles, pacifiers—anything that goes in their mouths—regularly.
  • Have your water tested for lead.

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