You’ve heard about it in the news lately, no doubt. The water crisis in Flint, Michigan, has put lead poisoning at the front of our minds, and in our hearts as families, schools and the community deals with it.
What is lead and how harmful is it?
Lead is a naturally occurring element found in small amounts in the earth’s crust. Even though it is natural, it can be toxic to humans and animals causing negative health effects.
Lead poisoning is when too much lead enters the body. The presence of lead in the body can cause serious health problems such as complications to the heart, bones, intestines, kidneys, and reproductive and nervous systems.
Lead poisoning can occur in both children and adults, according to the National Institutes of Health. In children under the age of six, lead poisoning can cause growth and developmental delays, behavioral problems, and muscle weakening. If exposed to high levels of lead, adults may experience some memory loss, muscle and joint pains, a reduced sperm count for men, and even miscarriages for pregnant women.
Where is lead found?
Lead can be found in all parts of our environment. In Flint, people are getting sick from the city’s lead-contaminated water supply pumped through old, lead pipes. But there are other places and ways someone can be exposed to lead.
Lead is invisible and has no scent, but can enter the body through:
- Air (from industrial sources or vehicles)
- Food (from storing food in ceramics, pottery, china, or crystal with lead in it)
- Water (from corrosion of plumbing materials)
- Dust (from inhaled indoor surfaces that have lead paint and are frequently in motion or bump or rub together)
- Soil (from exterior lead-based paint from houses or buildings flakes or peels that get into the soil)
Other sources of lead can include: certain paints (if a building was built before 1978, there’s a good chance lead was in the paint); batteries; gasoline; and some toy jewelry.
How can you tell you have lead poisoning?
Lead poisoning can be hard to detect, but the tell-tale signs include:
- Abdominal pain
- Loss of appetite
- Numbing of the extremities
- Kidney dysfunction
- Mental impairment (in children)
- Sleep problems
In an interview with Flint residents and educators, skin exposure to lead can even cause skin rashes.
The only way to really determine if you have lead poisoning is to get a blood test. If you or someone you’re in contact with starts showing symptoms and you suspect lead poisoning, get a blood test performed by a primary care provider. They will be able to advise you on any necessary medications or treatment.
How to prevent lead poisoning
While you can’t completely avoid lead, there are certain ways to protect yourself and your family from lead poisoning:
- If your home or place of work was built before 1978, talk to your local health department about testing paint and dust around for lead.
- If you notice paint chips on the floors or windowsills, clean those areas with a wet mop or a wet-wipe.
- Remember healthy hygiene; wash your hands and remove clothing when possible if you’ve come in contact with lead.
What can educators do to protect their students?
Educators are playing a vital role in assisting students and families with the lead crisis in Flint.The National Education Association wrote a letter to Congress advocating for the people of Flint and urging action.
The Superintendent of Flint Community Schools, Bilal Tawwab, has taken action to prevent the city water supply from entering the school system. Schools have been providing students fruits that can be peeled, such as bananas and oranges, instead of fruits that need to be washed, avoiding the lead in the water.
In addition, educators can provide students with foods high in certain nutrients that may help keep lead out of the body. This includes:
- Calcium: milk, yogurt, cheese, and green leafy vegetables like spinach
- Iron: lean red meats, beans, peanut butter and cereals
- Vitamin C: oranges, green and red peppers, and juice
If you believe you, your child or a student has been exposed to lead or is at-risk for exposure of lead, call your primary care provider, local health department, or the American Association of Poison Control Centers at 1 (800)-222-1222 for assistance.
Diana Tran is originally from California and is an intern at NEA Healthy Futures. She is currently finishing her last quarter at the University of California, San Diego. She has a passion for traveling, learning about new cultures and frequently volunteers with children and young adults with disabilities. She hopes to be a future healthcare provider. She also enjoys French fries, singing, hiking and a good pun.