Getting the lead out

You've tossed the recalled toys; here's how to protect your kids from other lead hazards.

/p> When Susan Ewing learned about Mattel’s massive recall in 2007 of toys made with lead paint, she felt betrayed. As an environmental engineer, she’d worked on contaminated sites and understood the dangers of lead exposure, especially for the developing brain and nervous system. “Lead can cause neurological damage in small children,” says the Vancouver mom, who’s concerned about the potential risks from tainted toys for her two daughters, Ella, three, and Claire, 10 months. “In Canada, we think we have the regulatory processes to know products are safe. It made me realize I have to be more wary.”

The great toy scare of 2007 was a disturbing wake-up call, alerting parents to the hidden hazards of lead for kids. If toys like Thomas the Tank Engine and Barbie can be toxic, what other sources of lead may be lurking in our homes?

While toy recalls have made the most headlines, other sources pose a greater risk. Lead-based paint in older homes is more likely to cause harmful effects in young children because lead dust particles can be easily ingested or inhaled. “A health risk I would be concerned about is if you live in an older house and are doing renovations,” says Lorraine Shaw, lab manager at McMaster University’s Occupational and Environmental Health Laboratory in Hamilton. Other sources include tap water in homes with lead pipes, cheap children’s jewellery, dishes with lead-based glaze, candles with lead-core wicks, crystalware, stained-glass craft materials, certain cosmetics and lead dust on the clothes of parents who work in high-risk industries such as battery recycling and smelting.

Lead exposure is particularly dangerous for infants and young children because they absorb it five to 10 times more easily than adults do. Their tendency to mouth objects also increases the risk. Short-term exposure to high levels of lead can cause vomiting, diarrhea, convulsions, coma or even death. Prolonged exposure to low levels of lead can affect intelligence, behaviour, attention, growth and hearing. Cases of severe lead poisoning in children are rare in Canada. But no one knows how many kids are affected by low-level exposure since there aren’t regular, population-based surveys here in Canada (unlike the US) and these subtle health effects are hard to detect.

Fortunately, the health problems associated with lead exposure can be prevented. Even better news: “Lead level exposures for children today are much less than a generation ago,” says Ray Copes, medical director of Environmental Health Services at the BC Centre for Disease Control in Vancouver. Copes cites three main reasons: the removal of lead additives to gasoline in the 1970s, the phasing out of lead-based household paint, and less lead in food due to the elimination of lead-soldered cans and other measures.

Nonetheless, minimizing your child’s exposure to lead is still important because as scientists learn more about lead’s effects, they are lowering the levels that are considered safe (see How Much Is Safe?).

Acute lead poisoning in kids can occur when parents don’t know about sources of exposure. Copes cites a case in which a dad who worked in a battery-recycling facility would drape his overalls over the high chair, exposing the child to dust particles. “It would be hard to pick a worse place,” he says. Shaw recalls a case that occurred because “the dad made bullets in the basement as a hobby.”

Here are tips to help protect your kids against health risks from some likely sources:

Renovate with care. “The biggest source of harmful exposure is the lead from paint in older homes,” says Margaret Sanborn, a family and emergency physician in Chesley, Ont. Houses built before 1980 may have some lead paint in the interior, while houses built before 1950 definitely do. If you are renovating an older home, take special precautions to keep dust that may contain lead from contaminating other areas of the house. Make sure you ask your contractor to apply appropriate safety measures, such as sealing vents and return grills in the work area. For tips, visit cmhc.ca; click on Consumers and search for the downloadable brochure called Lead Precautionary Measures.

Lead-based paint in older homes doesn’t present a health hazard if it’s not disturbed. Keeping painted surfaces in good condition helps to minimize risk. “Older homes, where there’s not been maintenance and the paint might be peeling or chipping, are a common source of lead exposure,” says Sanborn, who advises regular cleaning of horizontal surfaces, such as windowsills, where lead dust may collect through the friction of opening and closing.
Flush old pipes. Lead in tap water is a potential hazard in older homes with lead pipes, or newer homes where lead solder was used in the plumbing. “Run cold water for two to three minutes in the morning to flush out the water that has been sitting in contact with lead pipes or fixtures. Taking a shower will also work,” advises McGill University chemistry professor Joe Schwarcz in Montreal. “Because hot water dissolves more lead from the pipes, use only cold water for cooking or drinking.” A more expensive solution is to replace lead pipes.

Toss toxic toys. What are the actual risks from toys with lead-based paint? Experts recommend that parents remove all recalled toys, but “the risk is low unless the toy goes in the mouth and the child sucks, licks or chews on it daily,” says Dominic Chalut, a paediatric emergency physician and consultant in toxicology at Montreal Children’s Hospital. If the paint has been stripped or chipped, the risk of ingesting lead is much higher. For up-to-date information on tainted toys, visit Health Canada’s site at hc-sc.gc.ca; follow the link to consumer product recalls.

Beware lead jewellery. “Jewellery that is cheaper and heavier is more likely to contain lead,” advises Nadira Rambritch, a Health Canada product safety officer. “Make sure that small children don’t have the jewellery in their hands or mouths.” Many jewellery items made of lead are covered by a decorative coating, such as enamel, so you can’t see the greyish metal. The coatings wear off easily if sucked or chewed.

Keep work at work. Workers who do battery manufacturing, painting, smelting, metal recycling, wrecking and demolition or home renovations can be exposed to lead. Work clothes that may be contaminated with lead should be washed separately. Home hobbies, such as stained glass, pottery making and furniture refinishing, also may involve lead exposure. Wear protective equipment and keep children away from work areas to minimize their risk.

For Susan Ewing, the massive toy recalls last summer were unsettling. “As a parent, you have to expand your definition of childproofing by looking at anything that might have lead,” she says. She’s been especially wary of older painted toys that may never have been properly tested. “Because the primary exposure to lead would be through the mouth, we keep them away from the baby,” she says. Although Ewing doesn’t believe her daughters have suffered any health effects, she is taking steps to minimize the risks of any future exposure. “I don’t think panic is necessary, just common sense.”

Health Canada has set a maximum allowable blood lead level for children of 0.48 micromoles per litre. (In the US, the equivalent threshold is expressed as 10 micrograms of lead per decalitre.) The current safety level is lower than before, as the risks have become better understood. In the mid-1970s, for example, a blood level of 1.45 micromoles per litre was considered safe.

Even now, research suggests harmful effects may occur at levels below the current safety level, says Ray Copes, medical director of Environmental Health Services at the BC Centre for Disease Control in Vancouver. “For kids, it’s really subtle effects on intellectual development and the nervous system that are potential concerns,” he says. “The lower the lead level, the better.”

Children in Canada today typically have blood lead levels in the range of 0.05 to 0.15 micromoles per litre — about one-tenth the levels their parents likely had as kids.

If you are concerned about your child’s possible exposure to lead from toys, jewellery or home renovations, ask your family doctor or paediatrician to do a blood lead test. This simple test indicates the level of exposure over the past three months. If a child is below the allowable level but well above the normal range — between 0.3 and 0.48, for instance — there’s no reason to panic, but it’s unusual enough to suggest a preventable exposure.

In such a case, the doctor should take an environmental history to help identify the source at home, daycare, school or the parents’ workplaces. Copes also suggests contacting your local public health unit; it may send an environmental health officer to assess potential sources of lead. After you’ve found the source and dealt with it, repeat the test in three months. “Reducing the exposure is the most important thing you can do to prevent harmful effects,” Copes says.

Code red?

News that some brands of lipstick contain lead may have moms hiding their lippies under lock and key. Last fall, US consumer group The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics found that one-third of 33 brand-name red lipsticks topped the limit for lead content in candy set by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Lead is banned in Canadian cosmetics, but Health Canada says trace amounts could exist in raw materials or sneak in during the manufacturing process. While it estimates that a maximum of 10 percent of the lead in lipstick could be ingested, Health Canada is following the FDA’s lead and testing a variety of lipsticks, says spokesperson Carole Saindon. “If any products are found to contain high levels of lead as a result of [our] testing, the department will take action to remove these products from the market.” In the meantime, it might be wise to use lipstick sparingly if you are pregnant and to keep it away from toddlers. Says Margaret Thompson, medical director of the Ontario Poison Centre, “As lead is a neurotoxin, the most vulnerable to its effects are those whose brains are still developing — fetuses and children age five and under.”

– Kristen Vinakmens

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