How to Protect Your Children From Toxic Lead

New federal air standards are a start, but there is more you can do.

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The federal government's new standards aimed at reducing the amount of lead in air are good news for children, for whom air pollution has been one of the big remaining sources of exposure to this toxic metal. Twelve states will violate the new standard, which cuts the amount of lead allowed in air by 90 percent. Alabama, Colorado, Florida, Illinois, Indiana, Minnesota, Missouri, New Jersey, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, and Texas are the dirty dozen; they have factories, such as lead smelters or battery recycling operations, that emit lead. Children can be exposed to airborne lead by breathing particles or by touching dirt outside or surfaces inside where lead particles land, then putting their hands in their mouths.

The Environmental Protection Agency got moving because of a court order that came out of a lawsuit on behalf of people who lived near a lead smelter in Herculaneum, Mo., where children had elevated amounts of lead in their blood. "This is a big step forward for children's health," says Gina Solomon, a physician and senior scientist for the Natural Resources Defense Council, which lobbied for tighter lead controls. But, she adds, the reductions won't be fully in force until 2017, "too late for an entire generation of children." (Here's the NRDC's map showing lead-tainted sites throughout the country.)

This is the first mandated reduction in airborne lead since 1978, when the feds started phasing out leaded gasoline. Public-health doctors made the case that airborne lead from car exhaust permanently lowered children's IQ and damaged their memory. From the mid-1970s to the mid-1980s, the amount of lead in Americans' blood dropped by 50 percent, according to the EPA. Leaded gas was last sold in the United States in 1996. Some economists have even argued that the big drop in crime in the 1990s could be attributed to decreased exposure to airborne lead in childhood. Alas, lead is still widely used as a gasoline additive in China and other countries; in the developing world, most children under 5 have blood lead levels exceeding World Health Organization standards.

Unfortunately, children in the United States are still exposed to lead in old house paint, old pipes, and some toys and jewelry. To protect your children from lead exposure:

  • Make sure that paint in your house does not contain lead. Houses built before 1978 may need remediation to make sure that children aren't exposed to lead from paint. (Here's the EPA's advice on how to deal with lead in the home.)
    • Use only cold water for cooking and drinking, and run the tap for 15 to 30 seconds before using water if it's been sitting in the pipes overnight. This is a simple way to reduce the risk of lead exposure from solder in pipes.
      • Be aware that the new federal ban on lead in children's jewelry and toys isn't yet in force, so that toys bought for this holiday season could still contain lead. Check the Consumer Product Safety Commission's site for a list of recalled toys, but be aware that the list is far from complete.
        • Make sure children wash their hands regularly. This helps remove lead they may pick up from touching lead-tainted paint or soil. Bonus: It also reduces the odds of picking up a cold or flu.