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March 16th, 2009
01:53 PM ET

Lead poisoning remains a household danger

By David S. Martin
CNN Medical Senior Producer

This week you’re going to hear a lot about the dangers of poisoning, especially for children. It’s National Poisoning Prevention Week, and more than half of the 2.4 million calls to poison control centers involve children under age 6. One toxin that doesn’t usually prompt calls to a poison control hotline – a hidden toxin – may surprise you.

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, the most dangerous potential poisons are medicines, cleaning products, antifreeze, windshield wiper fluid, pesticides, furniture polish, gasoline, kerosene and lamp oil. One substance you probably won’t hear much about this week is lead. After all, U.S. oil companies began phasing out leaded gasoline in 1975, and the government banned lead in paint in 1978. But lead poisoning remains a threat that can tragically lower the trajectory of a child’s life.

For an upcoming Dr. Sanjay Gupta special looking at toxic chemicals in the environment, we interviewed Dr. Philip Landrigan, chairman of the Department of Community and Preventive Medicine at Mount Sinai Medical School in New York. In the 1970s, he was a young field investigator for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, traveling around the country and around the world, often on a few hours notice, chasing epidemics. Dr. Landrigan flew to El Paso in 1971, at the urging of the county health department, to look into the potential dangers to children living near a lead smelter. At the time, lead was generally considered to be what Landrigan calls an “all or none” disease. If you weren’t exposed to levels that caused coma or death, you were fine. Researchers didn’t realize lower levels could have a profound consequence on a child’s life. Landrigan and his colleagues found children living closer to the smelter had higher the levels of lead in their blood. More troublesome still, they found higher blood-lead levels meant lower IQs, lower attention spans and more disruptive behavior. This and other groundbreaking work marked the beginning of the end for lead in paint and gasoline. Doctors now consider no amount of lead as safe.

Still, old paint remains. The CDC found one in seven children under 5 are at “high risk” of lead exposure because they live in older housing. And the risk isn’t limited to toddlers chewing paint chips. Sanding and scraping old paint on walls and old window as part of a home renovation can kick up lead dust, which can cause brain damage - even in the womb, a tragic outcome for parents trying to get a room ready for the new baby.

Have you taken any precautions against lead in your home?

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