Aug. 15, 2007 -- Lead poisoning -- at levels that do not cause immediate
symptoms -- can permanently damage kids' brains.
Before their second birthday, children are particularly susceptible to lead
poisoning. They are, of course, more likely than older children to put
lead-contaminated hands or toys or paint chips in their mouths. Moreover, a
child's gastrointestinal tract also absorbs lead more readily than does the
Most importantly, a child's rapidly developing brain is highly vulnerable to
lead toxicity, says pediatrics professor John Rosen, MD, director of the lead
program at the Children's Hospital at Montefiore Medical Center, Bronx,
"Lead can be extremely dangerous for young children and can affect their
lives forever," Rosen tells WebMD. "It is better to be conservative and
safe and not ever sorry about excessive lead exposure."
Lead poisoning is almost never a single event in which a child ingests
harmful quantities of lead, gets sick, and must be rushed to the hospital.
Instead, lead poisoning is an insidious, month-by-month accumulation of lead in
a child's body.
"I have supervised 30,000 cases of child lead poisoning, and I have not
seen a case of symptomatic lead poisoning for many years," Rosen says.
That's why lead-painted toys can be such a problem, says John Benitez, MD,
director of the Lawrence Poison and Drug Information Center and associate
professor of pediatric and environmental medicine at the University of
"Parents need to know it is not an acute problem," Benitez tells
WebMD. "If a kid just touches and plays with a lead painted toy, it is not
a problem. But if that child sits and chews on it for weeks and months and
absorbs lead -- that becomes a risk."
What, exactly, is lead poisoning? How do you know if your child is at risk?
What should you do if your child has a worrisome level of lead exposure? WebMD
consulted experts for answers to these and other questions.
What Is Lead Poisoning?
The risks of lead have been known for decades. But there is surprisingly
little agreement on exactly when a child has accumulated a toxic amount of
Everybody agrees that there is no "safe" level of lead exposure.
However, the CDC doesn't recommend taking action unless a child's blood-lead
level exceeds 10 micrograms/dL -- a threshold set in 1991. Rosen says that's
far too high.
"There are now seven peer-reviewed articles in the medical literature
that indicate the major loss of IQ occurs in children at blood-lead levels of
less than 7.5 micrograms/dL," Rosen says. "A threshold of 10 is no
longer protective of children. ... I would very strongly suggest lowering the
threshold to 5, based on abundant data in the last five years."