Why childhood lead poisoning screening is critical – even now

by Elizabeth Turnbull

This past week public health officials and doctors across the nation raised awareness about lead — a metal found in household items and paint — which has the potential to cause health and developmental issues.

Found in some pots, spices, cosmetics, playgrounds and — most famously — leaded paint, there are many ways to come in contact with lead. Although it can be hard to see any symptoms of lead poisoning initially, over time, high blood lead levels in children have been shown to result in fatigue, irritability, developmental delays, and learning difficulties, among other things. 

“Lead is a huge issue because we find that it is a silent agent in many ways,” said Dr. Amish Dave, the Chair of the Public Health Committee for the King County Medical Society. “Lead can show up with kids who seem more hyperactive or they might seem like they’re slower in terms of cognitive skills — they’re not reaching their developmental milestones as quickly. But those are often older kids who might have already had damage done from lead at a younger age.”

A long-term misconception has persisted that residents of Washington State are at less of a risk for lead exposure than people living on the East Coast.This is not the case, as regularly visiting or living in any house built before 1978 can expose individuals to lead, and due to the Tacoma Smelter Plume, lead can also be found in the soil in some parts of King County.

In 2018, only 6,750 of the 155,000 children under six years old in King County were tested for blood lead levels. Of the children who were tested, 3.2% had reportable levels of lead such that the source of the lead poisoning had to be identified in order to prevent further damage, according to King County data.

King County mapping also shows that residents of South Seattle, in particular, are at a higher risk for lead exposure than residents elsewhere in Seattle due to factors such as housing conditions and income levels.

Currently, the goal is for children to be tested by their family medicine doctor when they go in for a routine visit, especially when they turn one and two years old, according to Dr. Dave. 

While ingesting any amount of lead can negatively impact a person of any age and can result in high blood pressure, miscarriages, and mood disorders for adults, children below the age of six and those at one and two years of age are especially at risk for experiencing negative impacts of lead ingestion and developmental issues.

Aside from living conditions, lead can also be found in ceramics, cosmetics, spices hand-carried from other countries, and cooking pots. In particular, spices like turmeric or beauty products like henna that have been brought over from South Asia or goods from other parts of the world can also be sources of lead. 

Ultimately, the best way to help your child is to know where lead can be found and how to protect against it, as the long-term effects of lead poisoning can make it more difficult for children to do well in school, and as they grow older, lead poisoning may lead to even greater societal issues.

“Generally speaking, we worry about all the long-term side effects from undiagnosed or untreated lead,” Dr. Dave said. “We worry that these are kids who are going to grow up less likely to graduate from high school, less likely to go to college, [and] there does seem to be an association with higher risk of incarceration.”  

For parents or loved ones who might be anxious about lead poisoning, the good news is that preventative measures can be incredibly effective, and children who have been exposed are automatically eligible for developmental services to help them to continue to progress, according to King County information. 

For information on King County’s virtual home lead assessments contact joyce.mccraney@kingcounty.gov or call 206-263-1945. More information on lead poisoning can be found here.

Elizabeth Turnbull is a Seattle-based journalist.

The featured image is attributed to Claire CJS under a CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 license.