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Lead: the metal enemy.

By Alice Bradley

When I first learned that this is National Lead Poisoning Prevention Week, I was determined to ignore it. Because lead terrifies me. And the primitive monkey part of my brain runs from scary things and then hides under a bush. We live in an ancient house with crumbling windowsills, and every time my son looks pale or refuses dinner, I think it’s the lead, oh god, the lead, he’ll never get past first grade. He’s overdue for a lead test and I’ve been putting it off because getting blood out of my son is right up there with the Most Harrowing Experiences You’ll Ever Experience.
After a few minutes of igoring and hiding, though, the slightly more advanced part of my brain, the chimp part, realized that ignoring something does not make it go away. I also realized that I don’t know too much about lead, except that it’s Bad, and Bad things are not Good. So I decided to stare lead in its stupid lead face and get some facts. And now I shall share them with you.
What is lead? What does lead do?
Lead is a highly toxic metal. When you ingest or inhale lead, it is quickly absorbed and distributed throughout the body to the blood, soft tissue (including the brain and nervous system), and bones. Once it’s entered the body, lead mimics the actions of calcium, and thus isn’t recognized as an intruder. Soon it’s got an all-access pass to the body. Lead and calcium ions work against each other, fighting for the same channels. Once lead has entered the channels meant for calcium, it can literally hijack those cells, commanding the uptake of more lead.
I tried to find a succinct, layperson-terms explanation of what lead does to the body, but it turns out that lead is so cataclysmic to so many systems that it defies concision. It is anti-pithy, the damage that lead does. It involves big words mingling with other big words until one’s eyes fall out. I’m going to give you one example of how lead affects the brain. It took me about four hours to read three studies on this and then get my eyes to screw back into my head.
Calcium ions are crucial to the functioning of the nervous system: they regulate neurotransmitters. This regulation affects the activity in the developing brain. The young brain has more synapses than an adult’s, and develops according to the stimuli it receives; normal development literally shapes the brain, pruning certain synapses that aren’t needed. When lead comes in, it increases neural activity. As a result, this shaping of the brain is affected, sometimes profoundly, causing behavioral disorders and learning disabilities.
Calcium, of course, isn’t just used in the brain. It’s also essential to bone strength, the production of blood cells, and muscle contraction. Once lead gets in on these functions, it can wreak havoc all over the place.
Who is most affected by lead poisoning?
High levels of lead can sicken and kill people of all ages, but the effects of low to moderate lead levels are most dangerous to children. Because lead so profoundly affects development, fetuses and children under the age of six are at greatest risk.
How common is lead poisoning?
More than 4% of children in the United States suffer from the effects of lead, making it the number one environmental illness of our children. It affects children with families from any income level–although poor, urban, non-white children are more at risk.
Symptoms of lead poisoning can vary from irritability and headaches to vomiting and seizures. It’s important to note, however, that many children with lead poisoning show no signs of being sick.
Where is all this lead?
Usually children are affected by lead paint in homes. Before the late ’70s, lead was used in household paints. If there’s any flaking or peeling paint, it can be ingested or inhaled (lead paint has a sweet taste, which needless to say makes it a likely snack for toddlers). Contamined soil from outside the home can be tracked indoors, where a crawling child would be exposed to it. Lead pipes inside the home can introduce lead into the water. And, as we all know, lead can sometimes be found in toys.
How much lead is too much?
Until recently common wisdom held that levels below 10 mcg/dL were acceptable, but that number is now being called into question. Evidence has shown that even trace amounts of lead can damage a child’s brain functioning. A study performed in 2003 found that levels below 10 mcl/dL caused declines in IQ that were greater than the damage inflicted by larger concentrations of lead.
What can I do?
Short of putting your child in a bubble (which is what I’m looking into), here are a few steps you can take:
If you live in an older building, let your water run from the faucet for at elast a minute before drinking it. (Or drink bottled water.) And never use hot water for drinking or cooking: hot water leaches more lead than cold.
Reduce the level of dust in your home. Keep surfaces clean and make sure your children’s hands and faces are washed frequently, especially before meals.
Make sure your children are getting plenty of iron and calcium in their diets. That can help fight off the absorption of lead.
Have the paint in your home tested by a certified lead paint inspector. (At-home tests are not particularly reliable.)
Finally, have your children tested for lead. That’s what I’m going to do. I swear. Anyone available to help me hold down a surprisingly strong five-year-old?

Alice Bradley
About the Author

Alice Bradley

Alice Bradley was a regular contributor to Alpha Mom, writing about current events as they related to parenting. You can read about her daily life at her personal blog, Finslippy.


Alice Bradley was a regular contributor to Alpha Mom, writing about current events as they related to parenting. You can read about her daily life at her personal blog, Finslippy.

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  • divabeq

    October 28, 2007 at 4:22 pm

    I work for my city’s water department, in the lab, and thought I’d add to this that having your water tested for lead is complimentary in many cities. Just call the local water department and request it and they should be able to tell you how to proceed with that.

  • Anne

    October 29, 2007 at 11:50 am

    I just had my youngest son tested and I thought it was going to be a finger stick test, no it was a blood draw. He handled it well (he has not it the past), and I was angry he even had to be tested. Thank you for this information. I have read that asking people to remove their shoes also keeps lead from dirt getting into your home (especially when you have a baby). I also avoid those cheap vending machine toys, which scream “coated in lead paint”.

  • Hatchet

    October 29, 2007 at 4:42 pm

    To make the blood draw go easier, see if you can get your pediatrician to prescribe a topical anesthetic. My allergist prescribed a tube for my daughter: you rub it in 1 hour before the blood draw and then they don’t feel a thing.
    We tried it out, amazed at the allergist’s thoughtfulness, and the blood draw went incredibly well.
    I plan on using it for MY next blood draw!

  • Homestead Mom

    October 29, 2007 at 11:24 pm

    Yes, yes, and yes. Our daughter registered at 8.9 or so on her 9-month blood test. We finally chased down the exposure culprit to our antique clawfoot tub, which had enamel that was leaching into each and every tubbie we put her in. Check all clawfoot/ older cast iron tubs! Sadly, this was news to both our plumber and pediatrician. Live and learn, and spread the word.
    Homestead Mom

  • izzy's mama

    October 30, 2007 at 10:19 am

    We live in a neighborhood of once crumbling/now being renovated old houses, one of which is ours. My son, at 9 months, tested on the high end of normal. From that moment on, we waged an all out war on lead, eradicating it from any possible surface, using special cleansers etc. I also changed his diet to assure it was higher in iron-rich foods. He is now, at 4.5, virtually lead-free! I find that many people in our neighborhood choose to ignore the facts about lead. I have tried to educate some families (who seem to think it just won’t happen to them), based upon our experience and they pooh pooh me until they get their lead results back. Thanks for helping to educate the masses!

  • karen

    October 30, 2007 at 12:36 pm

    I was told by our pedi that calcium blocks the absorption of iron, and iron is necessary to block or somehow reduce levels of lead in the body. She was concerned because our 2 YO was guzzling milk, which was somehow related to his low iron levels, and somehow this translated into higher risk of lead poisoning. Anyone know if this is correct?

  • Lauxa

    October 30, 2007 at 4:03 pm

    My mom is having memory and spacial problems and was recently tested for lead. She had high levels, and is now doing chelation to try and remove the toxins. My father and her husband for over 30 years, however, does not show abnormal lead levels, so who knows where it is coming from. I don’t suppose you did any research on chelation or other methods of removing lead from the body…

  • kim

    October 31, 2007 at 10:24 am

    About the low iron/increased lead risk: Calcium doesn’t exactly block iron absorption from your gut. It does compete with the iron for absorption if they’re both in the gut at the same time. The generally accepted idea is that lots of cow milk causes anemia due to microscopic, not-visible-to-the-naked-eye bleeding in your gut (it’s due to the cow milk proteins). So this bleeding results in anemia due to low iron. Your body responds by revving up iron absorption. Iron is a positive ion, and so is lead. Your body, in its desperation for iron, isn’t so careful about what other positive ions it absorbs and will take up lead, too. That’s part of the reason why limited milk intake and making sure your kid gets a well-balance diet (not the easiest thing to do with toddlers) is recommended.

  • ozma

    October 31, 2007 at 11:23 am

    God, that lead test actually did require some holding down. I think every person in the lab and most of the surrounding offices were required.
    Afterward, my daughter said “Next time you try that I’m calling for my GUARDS.”

  • Michelle

    October 31, 2007 at 1:50 pm

    Karen, calcium does block the absorption of iron, so you may want to hold off giving your son milk with his iron-loaded meal of the day. I don’t know about the relationship between iron and lead however. Too much milk can also make them constipated, that’s a lot of fun too!

  • AndrewZE

    November 4, 2007 at 1:51 pm

    Great post. Thank you.
    It’s very sad when the things our kids eat, wear and play with can make them sick. I check to make sure I am on top of all the latest lead recalls. I get an email alert from them automatically whenever there is a new recall.