How diet can help: Diet can play a protective role even before a child is born, Steingraber says. In the sixth month of pregnancy, when the fetal brain is rapidly developing, the skeleton is also hardening. Calcium is released from the mother’s bones to help build the baby’s; any lead stored in her bones is released with the calcium and can cross the placenta. The more calcium a pregnant woman consumes, the less calcium—and, consequently, the less lead—will likely be transferred from her bones to the fetus. And a recent Mexican study found that taking calcium supplements reduced breastfeeding mothers’ blood lead levels by up to 16 percent.
Calcium and other nutrients can help protect your child later, too. “Make sure your child gets plenty of iron, calcium, zinc and protein,” says Herbert Needleman, M.D., a child-psychiatry and pediatrics professor at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine whose research helped convince the federal government to ban leaded gasoline.
Close diet monitoring helped bring down the van Dam girls’ lead levels. In addition, they and their mother lived elsewhere while the lead was removed from their home, and the imported wooden toys were thrown away. At press time, the girls’ lead levels had dropped to 18 mcg/dl and 8 mcg/dl, and they show no ill effects from their exposure.
Clearly, instead of having to monitor your child’s lead level later, you want to start protecting her during your pregnancy. “All pregnant women need to get the lead out of their environment,” says Pam Meyer, an epidemiologist with the CDC’s Lead Poisoning Prevention Branch in Atlanta (www.cdc.gov/nceh/lead/lead.htm). “Many people still think lead poisoning is only a problem for the urban poor, but that’s not true. It cuts across all socioeconomic levels.”