Avoid Neurological Problems: Test for Lead

Posted on Aug 14, 2008 in Uncategorized

By Dr. Elizabeth Smoots

Young children explore the world mainly through sucking, licking and tasting. How often I hear parents of toddlers exclaim: “Don’t put that in your mouth!”

This developmental trait puts kids at high risk for getting lead poisoning. Swallowing tiny chips of leaded paint from dust in older buildings, toys imported from China, and improperly fired ceramics are a few of the potential sources.

Why bring up the age-old hazard of lead now? Recent research has revealed that excess childhood exposure to the heavy metal increases the risk for adult crime.

Behavioral study results

In one study, scientists recruited 250 children from inner-city areas of Cincinnati, Ohio, where many older homes contain lead. The researchers measured blood lead levels in the children from birth until age 7.

Years later, the researchers obtained criminal records to determine the frequency of arrest of the same kids – now grown – between the ages of 19 and 24 years. They discovered that the higher the blood lead-level was during childhood, the higher the rate of arrest was as an adult.

The tie between high lead and violent crime was especially strong. Data showed a 50 percent increase in arrests for violent crime for every elevation in blood lead levels of 5 micrograms per deciliter.

Other studies have found a relationship between lead toxicity and learning or behavior problems. Lowered intelligence, less tolerance for frustration, deficits in attention, hyperactivity, and weak impulse control are associated with toxicity from low-to-moderate amounts of lead. Recent additions to the list include antisocial behavior and juvenile delinquency.

“Childhood lead exposure seems to place individuals at risk for multiple underlying neurobehavioral deficits associated with a higher probability of later criminal behavior,” the Cincinnati researchers conclude.

Brain imaging findings

Another group of Cincinnati researchers took a different tack. Using magnetic resonance imaging, a type of brain scan, they measured the brain size of 157 young adults who had blood lead levels taken as children. The scientists found that the greater the lead exposure as children, the smaller the brain volume on reaching adulthood. For unknown reasons, the lead had a larger effect on men than women, causing more extensive damage to areas that regulate behavior and fine movement.

Reducing lead exposure

To help reduce the risks, here’s what parents can do:

House paint | Have your home tested for lead-based paint if it was built before 1978. If lead is detected, remove peeling paint; then repaint the rooms.

House dust | Don’t let children play in areas with lead-containing dust. Culprits in older homes include corners, carpets, remodeling projects, and soil near foundations. Children inhale or swallow the dust.

Hand washing | To remove contaminated dust, wash your child’s face and hands before meals.

Water pipes | Ask local officials about testing your water for lead; older pipes were joined with lead solder.

Buyer beware | Older or imported toys may contain lead-based paint. So may the glaze on imported or craft dishware; the government regulates those products made in the U.S.

Concerned your children are at risk? Talk to your doctor about blood testing for lead.