4 Hidden Lead Sources Lurking in Your Home
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4 Hidden Lead Sources Lurking in Your Home

The Flint, Michigan water crisis, in which thousands of people were exposed to lead through contaminated water and pipes, reminded us that lead can lurk in many places, exposing children and adults to it every year. More recently, officials in the Newark, New Jersey school district turned off school water fountains amid concerns, after annual testing, that too much lead was leaching into the water from its outdated pipes.

The reality is, lead is a naturally occurring element, in thousands of places. Most of it won’t harm the healthy adult (so you can stop searching Amazon for a lead-protecting body bubble). Adults are typically exposed by either eating or inhaling lead, or by being chronically exposed to it. However, young children are at higher risk. Not only are they more likely to be exposed to lead (since everything they find goes into their mouths), their developing brains and bodies are more vulnerable to the effects of lead poisoning.

So, if you have young children at home, keep these three key culprits for hidden lead exposure in mind.

Dishware: Certain dishes/utensils carry higher amounts of lead – creating significant risk because the heating process can cause lead to leach into the food, which we then eat. Highest risk is dishes manufactured in a foreign country (especially those cute ceramic bowls you picked up on your last trip) and older dishware, since the federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA) didn’t regulate lead in dishes until the 1970s. Newer dishes are less likely to be a concern, since stores face increased scrutiny and most big chains conform to California’s tougher standard. But to be on the safe side, follow these tips:

  1. Microwave and store food in glass, not ceramic dishware, since heating and storing (especially acidic foods) increase the risk that the lead will leak into the food.
  2. If a dish is chipped/cracked replace it. Even in dishes purchased today, some lead may be present – and the glaze has to be intact to prevent lead from leaching out. So, if the glaze is disrupted (or just looks a little dusty/chalky after washing), the safest bet is to replace the dish.
  3. Consider buying “Lead-Free” dishware (you can find it in many stores now).

Toys: The Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) bans the use of lead in many children’s products, but not all. In addition, periodic recalls show that lead-laden toys manufactured in other countries do make their way stateside. Antique toys are often covered in lead-based paint, making them another bad choice for any young child.

What to do:

  1. Avoid vinyl toys (think soft leathery-type toys and even shoes): These can be legally sold with certain lead levels because children aren’t expected to swallow or chew on them. (But any parent of a toddler knows what kids do with toys!)
  2. Toss out “free” toys that are metal or painted. According to Dr. Gaylord Lopez, director of the Georgia Poison Center, you can’t know where they were manufactured, so best to play it safe.
  3. Save the antique toys until kids are older.
  4. Sign up for government recalls of toys from the CPSC.
  5. For the youngest children, consider purchasing toys that are made in the US, or online sites will help you know which brands are specifically lead-free. Also, only buy toys for that specific age group, since toys for youngest children have more stringent requirements.

Jewelry: A piece of metal toy jewelry was responsible for a child’s death of lead poisoning after he swallowed it in 2006, leading to a large recall. In addition to toy jewelry, foreign-made jewelry poses a risk.

  1. Don’t let young children play with toy metal jewelry or your costume jewelry (a good rule of thumb anyway, since many of these are choking risks).
  2. Keep your fantastic bracelets from your global travels out of reach until your child is old enough to not put them in her mouth.

Food: There is no “safe” blood lead level, but lead manages to sneak into many facets of our daily lives. The Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) released a report showing lead was detected in 20 percent of baby food samples tested over ten years in the “Total Diet Study” conducted by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). While the amount of lead found in the samples was low, any lead exposure should be minimized, as according to The National Toxicology Program, low levels of lead in the blood are still associated with lower IQ, attention-related behavioral issues, and lower academic achievement. It is estimated that more than 1 million children exceed the daily limit of 6 micrograms, a standard established by the FDA in 1993. Even fruit juice is not immune; 89 percent of grape juice, 67 percent of mixed fruit juice, 55 percent of apple juice and 45 percent of pear juice samples tested positive for lead. Even before these findings, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommended limiting fruit juice for other health reasons, namely excess calories and sugar. They advise juice intake for older children to be minimal, and those under one year to avoid it altogether.

What you can do:

  1. Look online or call your favorite food brands to see if they test their products for lead regularly. If they do, confirm lead levels in the food are less than 1 ppb (parts per billion).
  2. Avoid fruit juice in children less than 1, and only give rarely in older children. 
  3. Opt for fresh fruit and vegetables and avoid processed foods if possible, as lead could contaminate the food during processing. When you do give them prepared baby fruit and vegetables, pay close attention to serving sizes and give a variety of different foods, to minimize your child’s exposure to lead from any one source.  

Still concerned? Many states mandate that all children be tested for lead exposure, but not all states. If you’re concerned that your child may be exposed to lead, speak with your pediatrician to see if a blood test is warranted. And if you just want to check your house, contact your State Department of Health to find a local inspector.

This article was originally published on March 22, 2016. 
This article was updated on June 19, 2017.