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Lead exposure from surprising new source
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Inside the house, lead exposure can came from dust and paint chips from surfaces painted before 1978. Toys can get dead dust on them, as well as young childrens hands as they crawl on floors, and ingested when they put things in their mouths. - photo by Veronica Coons

Lily Aikings,  Director of the Barton County Health Department, is concerned some of the county’s children may be at increased risk for lead poisoning.  Surprisingly, the risk factor may come from an unlikely source--their parents.  

“Oilfield workers are another high-risk occupation,” she said.  “Fitting pipes with the lead “dope” contaminates the worker’s clothing and work boots, and if they discard their work clothes in the home where children are, we are finding higher blood lead levels in those children.”

All children that take part in the county’s Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program, and all who receive Kan Be Healthy checkups at the Great Bend clinic are tested for blood lead levels.  Scores below five micrograms per deciliter of lead in blood are considered normal.  If a score between five and nine mdl is discovered, the patient receives ongoing monitoring and parents are advised on ways to lower the risks of increased exposure and recommended foods to eat to help rid the body of lead.  If levels of 10 mdl or higher are found, Barton County public health nurse Theresa Detherage will perform case management which includes a site visit, ongoing testing and assisting families to create a plan to lower lead levels.  In rare cases, levels above 45 mdl require Chelation treatment, a procedure in which the patients blood is “cleaned.”

“It can take nearly two years for levels higher than 10 mdl to decrease to acceptable levels,” she said.  That’s because lead is absorbed into the bones.  

Children who have high levels of lead in their blood are susceptible to several health problems which include nervous system and kidney damage, attention deficit disorder, learning disabilities, decreased intelligence, speech, language and behavioral problems, poor muscle coordination, decreased muscle and bone growth, and hearing damage, Aikings said.

She recommends that parents that work in oilfields change clothing at the site, before getting into vehicles that children may ride in, and wash clothes separately so they do not mix with children’s clothes.  

But that’s only one potential risk factor children need to be protected from.  

While the “5-second rule” may be okay for adults, it’s not recommended for children, especially those under the age of six, because their bodies absorb higher amounts of ingested lead than adults, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.  Its online publication, Learn about Lead, cautions, “Babies and young children can also be more highly exposed to lead because they often put their hands and other objects that can have lead from dust or soil on them into their mouths.”

Dust containing lead can infiltrate a house through any tiny space, especially around window and door openings.  It can be tracked in on the soles of shoes or bare feet, as well as by pets.  It also likely exists in one form or another in homes built before 1978, when lead was banned from use in paint in the United States.  Even if a surface has been painted over, whenever paint ages and flakes away exposing bare wood or sub-layers of paint, the risk that lead is present in the environment is there.  

“The paint by itself is not a great hazard, the danger comes from when the paint is degraded, disturbed, or abraded; the resulting dust is than accessible to be inhaled or ingested by the body,” said Jack Willenburg with CenKan Lead Testing, LLC in Claflin.

He uses x-ray fluorescence technology to determine if and how much lead-based paint is present in a home,  He conducts a surface by surface inspection both inside and out to determine which, if any surfaces have lead present.  He can also take dust, water and soil samples for lab testing.  A surface is considered contaminated by lead if it has a reading of 1 or more micrograms of lead per square centimeter.

Lead based paint can be found in any painted or sealed surface, he said.  In high-friction areas like floors, window sashes and door jambs, the risk of exposed lead and lead dust is higher.  If it is present, it may be time to call in a professional.

“It’s important to remember that improper lead removal can be more dangerous than simply leaving it alone,” Willenburg advises.  He offers suggestions for both temporary and permanent fixes to mitigate lead exposure.

Detherage says it’s important to keep living spaces in high risk homes clean and dust free by wiping surfaces down with damp cloths and mopping, rather than dry dusting which only redistributes dust in the air.

Another source of lead exposure may come from water, especially in older homes.  Some may still have lead pipes or fixtures, or pipes fitted with lead dope.  Lead easily leaches into soft water and hot water.  Parents and landlords are advised to have plumbing checked to determine if these need to be updated.  

Even though there is less lead from automobile emissions today than before 1996, people who live along high-traffic areas have more lead in the soil surrounding their homes.  

“Lead is one of those things that live forever,” Aikings said.  “If you live along that area, you have that risk.”  

Leaded gasoline began to be phased out of use in the United States in 1973.  As of Jan. 1, 1996, the Clean Air Act banned the sale of regular gasoline for use on roadways, but some off-road vehicles still use it.  These include some aircraft, watercraft, race cars and farm machinery.  
In addition, if exterior paint containing lead has been improperly scraped, and paint chips have been allowed to mix with dirt surrounding the home, those areas will remain contaminated unless the soil is removed, Detherage said.  

In order to lessen contact with outdoor lead, she recommends kids be encouraged to play in areas where soil is not exposed, such as grassy lawns or play areas where mulch has been applied.  Provide a sandbox for kids to dig in, she recommends, as children often enjoy digging.

Willenberg recommends growing grass or groundcover to cover lead contaminated soils.  Lead does not move in the soil, so it will not contaminate grass.

Home gardeners will be glad to know that for the most part, vegetables grown in average garden soil is okay to consume, as long as it is thoroughly washed before hand.  However, if children are expected to help in the garden, precautions like using raised beds filled with non-contaminated soil should be considered.  

Web resources:
Protect Children from Lead Poisoning,
Lead in the Home Garden and Urban Soil Environment,
CenKan Lead Testing,