DEAR DOCTOR K >> A friend's daughter got lead poisoning from paint in her house. What can I do to protect my kids?

DEAR READER >> Lead is poison. Although major strides have been made in the past 50 years, lead poisoning is unfortunately still a problem. All of us are exposed to lead, but children are most vulnerable to it.

We used to have lead in gasoline. Automobile exhaust put lead in the air, exposing all of us. There was a lot of lead in paint in the United States until about 1950. The lead content was at first reduced, then eliminated completely from paint in the mid-1970s.

Unfortunately, older homes that were painted with lead-containing paint still pose a risk. The latest coat of paint won't contain lead. However, if the paint peels, lead from the old paint gets into house dust. Some toddlers like to lick paint chips; if it's old paint, lead gets into their body. If outdoor paint peels, the ground around the base of the house where kids play is contaminated. Many communities have made major investments to reduce lead-containing paint from older buildings.

A 2012 report from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that lead contamination of drinking water could be a problem in old homes. The soldering of old copper pipes used to contain lead.


Elevated lead levels in the body can cause developmental delays, behavioral problems, fatigue, headaches, abdominal pain, anemia, seizures and even coma. The first signs of lead poisoning may not appear until school age.

The cognitive and behavioral changes caused by lead are irreversible. That's why early detection is so important: It can prevent these later problems. All children should be screened for lead poisoning with a simple blood test, starting at 6 months of age. If the test is positive, the local public health department then assists in discovering what the source of the child's lead exposure is. And if one child is positive from lead in the home, the other kids who live there should be tested too.

Once the source of lead exposure is removed, a child's body eventually will get rid of the lead. Some children may need to take a drug that helps remove lead. Children with brief, low-level exposures usually recover completely.

The best way to prevent lead poisoning is to remove all sources of lead. To check if your home has lead paint, purchase a lead test kit, or have a certified inspector test your home.

If your home does contain lead-based paint, hire a certified contractor to remove it. Don't try removing the paint yourself: Unless the job is done absolutely correctly, paint removal can worsen the problem. Until then, carefully and frequently clean your home to reduce lead exposure.

Dr. Komaroff is a physician and professor at Harvard Medical School.