Problems with lead still exist

For hundreds of years we have known that lead is poisonous to humans. Hippocrates, who lived 400 years before Christ, recognized and described the signs of lead poisoning among miners. Because lead is present in many things used in everyday life, all of us will have tiny amounts of it in our bodies.

Research has shown that even relatively small amounts of lead, previously thought to be safe, can have a damaging effect, especially in babies and young children.

In particular, raised levels of lead in the blood can interfere with intellectual development. Apart from its effect on children’s intelligence, too much lead can also cause disturbed behaviour, headaches, stomach pains, lethargy, constipation and anaemia.

In severe cases of lead poisoning paralysis, brain damage, fits, loss of consciousness and death may occur.

However, most children with too much lead in their blood will show no, or only the vaguest symptoms. Children get lead into their bodies through breathing in fumes containing lead (usually from petrol) and swallowing things contaminated with minute particles of lead. Because small children so often put things in their mouths, the latter source is especially important.

Lead is used in many industries and the soil, dust and indeed the whole environment near such activities may contain increased amounts of lead.

An important source of lead is paint. Before 1970 many homes were decorated with lead-based paints.

Many of these older homes are now being renovated or demolished. Often the paintwork is peeling - providing an instant source of lead for young hands. Ways to reduce the risks of exposure to lead include :

  • wash children’s hands and faces before meals and bedtime
  • discourage children from putting dirty fingers or toys in their mouths
  • wash toys, dummies (and family pets) often
  • keep dust to a minimum
  • use unleaded petrol
  • (In older homes) Keep children away from peeling paint or chewable surfaces
  • encourage a diet high in calcium and iron. These slow the absorption of lead from the intestine
  • give small children regular small meals.

Lead is best absorbed from an empty stomach If you live close to “lead” industries (mining, smelting, automobile repairs, batteries and many others) it may be necessary to take special precautions, particularly if you are pregnant. If you think that you or your children may have been exposed to excessive amounts of lead, discuss it with the doctor. A simple blood test can clarify the matter.

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