The Lowdown on Lead

Protecting your child from lead poisoning begins when you're pregnant.


Last August, Nicky Marble van Dam received an alarming phone call from a state health worker: The Los Angeles-area mother's 13-month-old daughter, Erin, had a blood lead level of 26 micrograms per deciliter—17 points higher than the level that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) considers safe. Erin's 3-year-old sister, Addy, had a level of 11 micrograms. The van Dam children do not fit the classic profile of a lead-poisoning victim: an inner-city child living in substandard housing. In fact, the girls had no obvious symptoms, and only because their HMO routinely screens children in urban areas at the age of 1 were they tested for lead—two months after their parents began renovating their 1920s bungalow home. The CDC reports that 1 in 46 American children ages 1 to 5 has an unsafe blood lead level, but many scientists and pediatricians think this figure is deceptively low. Several studies show that levels even as low as 2.5 mcg/dl can contribute to growth retardation, learning disabilities, hearing loss, hyperactivity and attention-deficit disorders, and aggression. They also show that very high levels can cause permanent brain damage or death. No one is certain how long a child must be exposed for damage to occur, but the younger she is, the greater the risk. Avoiding exposure during pregnancy (and, later, when breastfeeding) is critical, since even very low lead levels can alter fetal brain development, says Sandra Steingraber, Ph.D., the author of Having Faith: An Ecologist's Journey to Motherhood (Perseus Publishing, 2001) and an expert on the prenatal effects of toxins.

Why doctors don't test: While lead poisoning is largely preventable, many cases may be missed by doctors who believe it is only a problem among the urban poor. "I had to insist that my pediatrician test my son," says Meredith Soelberg, a Los Angeles mother of a 2-year-old. "He said I shouldn't bother since I didn't fit the demographic. Meanwhile, I live in a house built in the late '30s." (Fortunately, her son was fine.) Since paints contained lead through the mid-1970s and lead is also found in many ceramic tiles, it's assumed that many older homes harbor it. In areas where friction occurs, such as windowpanes, cabinets and doorways, microscopic lead dust is released into the air, where it can then fall on toys that young children put into their mouths. Contractors who renovate old homes often do not inform clients of the hazards of lead dust, even though they are legally obligated to do so, says David Rheault, a San Pedro, Calif., contractor who specializes in lead abatement. Interestingly, the highest lead level in the van Dam home was on painted wooden toys from Germany that bore a "safe colors" logo. "It was a fluke that we tested the toys," van Dam says. "We handed them to the inspectors at the last minute."

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 ( "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."