Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention Week in late October was a time to step back and realize how dangerous the world can still be when it comes to keeping our children safe and healthy.
For Will County Health Department Lead Program Manager Lyyti Dudczyk, this is an on-going battle.
When a child of any age comes into the Will County Health Department’s Community Health Center or their private provider for a pediatric exam; and blood testing shows an alarmingly high level of lead, Dudczyk’s team within the Family Health Services Division goes into action and handles the case. Their efforts concerning children six and under are helped even further by a grant from the Illinois Department of Public Health, which provides for monitoring of children ages six and under who have elevated blood lead levels.
Dudczyk says it is important to note that once her team takes over a possible lead poisoning case, it is only that particular issue that they are concerned with.
“We have to assure the families,” Dudczyk explained, “that we are not looking for anything other than sources of lead. We are simply there for the health of the children. We start by calling the child’s regular health provider and checking their records. The state then sends an environmental inspector to the home to look for clues on the source of the lead, and we try to be there at the same time to ask questions and provide information.”
What can the source of a high blood lead level in a child? One of the first things that always must be checked is the possibility of old paint in homes. Although no homes built after 1978 are supposed to have lead-based paint, a lot of older homes still do. Dudczyk says that sure, you can paint over it. But if you have peeling or chipping paint, it’s not as simple.
“By law, if a contractor is doing any project in a home built before 1978, they have to check for lead paint and take numerous precautions,” Dudczyk explained. “But sometimes do-it-yourselfers just scrape away peeling paint, not realizing that their children are inhaling lead dust because paint chips are lying on the floor.”
But Dudczyk also emphasizes that quite often paint has nothing to do with the problem. “They might test high, but they’re in a new house, so it’s obviously not lead paint,” Dudczyk explained. “That’s when you have to look at other factors, such as food or what it’s being cooked in.”
Dudczyk says this can indeed happen with spices, vitamins, or cookware from other countries. One particular spice that contains lead is turmeric, which is popular in India. As another example; pottery from Mexico, Dudczyk cautions, can often contain lead, which subsequently affects the food being cooked in or on it.
And perhaps as a huge surprise to many people, another source of high lead levels in a child’s blood can be cosmetics. In India, for example, mothers often apply eye liner around their children’s eyes as a tradition. Sometimes this is done as early as infancy as a form of protection. But again, the liners made in India, which can then be brought over to the United States, are often lead-based. “There’s nothing wrong with using eye liner on children,” Dudczyk said, “but they need to find a substitute; one that does not contain lead.”
Traditions, customs, or habits right here in the U.S. can cause trouble just as well. Earlier this year the Community Health Center discovered a high blood lead level in an 11-year-old child who had recently moved to Illinois from the south. It turned out that he hunted squirrels, and would hold the bullets or pellets in his mouth. “There was the problem,” Dudczyk recalled. “The lead was being absorbed into his body, just like what happens when one absorbs the dangers from chewing tobacco. Sometimes it just takes a little detective work.”
And finally, sometimes a high blood lead level in children can be as simple as where the parents work. “We’ve had situations,” Dudczyk recalled, “where a parent’s job was to clean a gun rack or sand blast a water tower. When that is the case, the solution can be as simple as removing your work clothes before entering your home.”
How common is this problem? In 2016, over 500,000 children in the United States were estimated to have blood lead levels greater than the intervention level recommended by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In Illinois alone, more than 8,300 children were confirmed with blood lead levels greater than the CDC’s intervention mark.
Dudczyk says that, unfortunately, there are often no outward symptoms of lead poisoning until long term effects set in. These effects can include learning disabilities or lower IQs; in addition to perhaps causing children who are already autistic to have additional problems, such as with PICA disorder (where children have the desire to eat nonfood items).
More information can be found by going to the CDC web site, www.cdc.gov
; the website of the Environmental Protection Agency, www.epa.gov
; or the Illinois Department of Public Health, www.idph.gov