DIALOGUE: Lead exposure, the facts
Q&A with Children's Hospital Boston toxicologists
August 15, 2007
Recent toy recalls may leave you wondering about your child's exposure to lead. Read on to get the facts from Children's Hospital Boston's Michael Shannon, MD, MPH, an emergency physician, toxicologist and co-director of the Pediatric Environmental Health Center at Children's Hospital Boston and Alan Woolf, MD, MPH, a pediatrician, toxicologist, co-director of the Pediatric Environmental Health Center and director of the Environmental Medicine Program at Children's Hospital Boston.
Why were some toys recalled?
They were recalled for one of two reasons. Some toys were coated in lead paint. Others contained loose magnets.
Why is lead dangerous?
Little by little, it can collect in your child's blood, brain, and bones. At toxic levels, it can affect language, attention and even IQ. These effects may take a long time to appear.
What ages are at risk?
Lead can affect people of all ages, but children aged 6 and younger are especially at risk, in part because their growing bodies absorb more lead.
How would lead get inside my child's body?
Your child can swallow dust or paint chips that contain lead.
Is my child at risk for lead exposure?
Possibly. But if your child has played with a recalled toy, there's no reason to panic. Lead can't be inhaled or absorbed through intact skin. Eating one flake of lead-containing paint isn't harmful.
The concern would be if your child is swallowing a lot of lead over time, which is "not easy to do from these toys," says Shannon. Look out for these scenarios:
- Your child repeatedly chews on a toy recalled for lead-based paint, and paint is missing.
- Your child plays with antique toys that are painted or metal, such as tea sets.
How else might my child be exposed to lead?
- Lead paint or dust in homes built before 1978
- Traditional home remedies, such as azarcon and greta
- Old jewelry
- Drinking water contaminated by old pipes
- Home remodeling
What are the symptoms of lead poisoning?
There may be no symptoms.
With low exposure, your child may act irritable, have trouble sleeping, or eat less than usual. However these are non-specific behaviors that are often seen in normal toddlers. If your child has been exposed to high amounts of lead, he or she may have abdominal pain or lose consciousness.
What if I think my child has been exposed to lead?
Take your child to the pediatrician. "Don't buy over-the-counter lead testing kits, as they are unreliable," says Dr. Woolf. Your doctor will use a blood sample to test your child. This test is a reliable and inexpensive, or even free. Lead poisoning is treatable with a medicine that pulls lead out of the blood.
What about small magnets? Why are they a concern?
Small magnets can break off of toys, and your child can swallow them. Your child may choke, or get an infection from swallowing one magnet. Two or more magnets can stick together in your child's stomach or intestines, blocking or damaging them.
If your child is choking, or swallows several magnets, take him or her to the emergency room.
How can I keep my child safe?
- Send recalled toys back to the manufacturer.
- Read toy labels. Don't give your child toys intended for older children.
To minimize your child's lead exposure:
In your house:
- Have your home checked for lead
- Have professionals remove lead-based paint
- Take precautions when remodeling
- Wash kid-accessible surfaces with soapy water
In your family:
- Wash hands before meals and bed
- Wipe your toddler's hands off periodically in-between meals, especially if they have been playing outside
With your child:
- Wash pacifiers, toys, and bottles
- When in doubt, test your child's toy for lead
Where can I find more information?
You can learn more about Mattel's 2007 toy recall here. See "Recall Details & Toy Listings" for an up-to-date recall list.
Visit the Consumer Product Safety Commission for an updated list of all toys recalled for lead paint, magnets, or choking hazards.
Founded in 1869 as a 20-bed hospital for children, Children's Hospital Boston today is the nation's leading pediatric medical center, the largest provider of health care to Massachusetts children, and the primary pediatric teaching hospital of Harvard Medical School. In addition to 347 pediatric and adolescent inpatient beds and comprehensive outpatient programs, Children's houses the world's largest research enterprise based at a pediatric medical center, where its discoveries benefit both children and adults. More than 500 scientists, including eight members of the National Academy of Sciences, nine members of the Institute of Medicine and 10 members of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute comprise Children's research community. For more information about the hospital visit: www.childrenshospital.org/newsroom.