What is the disease?
Lead is a naturally occurring heavy metal, often used in industry. It can be dispersed widely in the environment through contamination of water, dust, soil, and some paints.
Lead can affect anybody, but children under five years of age are at greater risk because they tend to put their hands or other objects into their mouths; they absorb more ingested lead than adults; and their brains are still at developing stage so they are more sensitive to the effects of lead.
What are the main sources of lead exposure in children?
Lead may be found in the paint on some toys. While Australian standards limit the amount of lead permissible in materials used to make and paint children's toys, some imported toys may present a risk. A significant proportion of toys sold in Australia are imported from other countries.
- Paint - lead-based household paints were used before 1970 in Australia and is still used in some countries.
- Dust - household dust may contain lead particles from deteriorating lead-based household paint, contaminated soil or dust brought into the house on your or your pets' feet.
- Soil - dirt can become contaminated with lead by deteriorating or removed lead-based paint, and previous industrial activities and mining.
- Water - some old household pipes used to be soldered with lead. Rainwater from water tanks may have increased lead levels if lead containing dust has contaminated the roof or guttering, or by leaching lead from the roof and pipes.
Also very old toys and cots with the original paint may contain unsafe levels of lead.
Exposure prone activities
- Renovating a house built before 1970.
- Hobbies - people can take lead residues into their homes on clothes, skin, hair and equipment after contact with lead in their work or in hobbies such as target shooting, making glazed pottery, stained glass, and making fishing sinkers.
- Occupations - such as mining and smelting.
How does lead affect children's health?
Lead can enter human body by inhalation or ingestion. It can affect almost every organ and system in the body. The symptoms of lead exposure depend on how long and what amount is ingested or inhaled by children. As lead poisoning often occurs without obvious symptoms, it can go unrecognised.
Lead exposure in childhood can cause behaviour and attention problems, learning difficulties and cognitive losses. It may also affect physical growth, blood cell development and the functioning of the kidneys.
Lead ingested by pregnant women can pass through the placenta and affect babies.
Lead poisoning is preventable
The following suggestions can reduce your child's lead exposure.
Behaviour to reduce potential lead exposure
- Frequently wash children's hands.
- Regularly wash family pets and toys.
- Regularly wash or wet-mop floors, stairs, and window sills to reduce dust.
- Remove recalled imported toys from children.
- House renovation - take care if renovating a house built before 1970.
- Pregnant women and young children should not be present while lead-based paint is being removed.
- Old paint - make sure your child does not have access to peeling or deteriorating paint or chewable surfaces painted with lead based paint, such as old cots.
- Soil and dirt - move play areas away from bare soil and try to keep your child out of the dirt.
Healthy and varied diet
Children who have dietary deficiencies in iron, calcium, and vitamin C are more susceptible to harm from lead exposure. Iron-sufficient diets discourage absorption of lead. Calcium competes with lead and can inhibit its absorption. Vitamin C may increase excretion by the kidneys.
Dietary sources of iron, calcium and vitamin C
Sources of iron
- Meat: lean beef, veal, ham, pork, chicken, lamb
- Cereal: iron fortified cereals, wheat germ
- Fish: clams, mussels, oysters, tuna, trout, cod, sardines
- Fruits: dried fruits (apricots, raisins, prunes, dates)
- Vegetables (only fair sources): spinach, collard greens, lentils, peas, beans, peanut butter
Sources of calcium
- Milk, ice cream, yoghurt, cheese
- Fish: sardines, anchovies, shrimp, trout, cod, mackerel, tuna, salmon, crab, lobster
- Vegetables: cabbage, collard, kale broccoli, spinach, bok choy, mustard greens
- Fruits: oranges, pineapples, raisins, fortified orange juice
Sources of vitamin C
- Fruits: grapefruit, oranges, cantaloupe, strawberries, juices
- Vegetables: broccoli, green peppers, greens
What to do if you are concerned about lead exposure?
If you suspect that your child has been exposed to lead, contact your doctor or your local Public Health Unit.
For more information
Further information can be obtained from your local public health unit. In NSW call 1300 066 055 to talk to your local Public Health Unit.