A toxin found in some homes may threaten children's IQs, according to Lorne Garrettson, associate professor of pediatrics at the School of Medicine and director of the Georgia Poison Center. The toxin is lead -- and it is found in the paint dust created during the renovation of older homes, Garrettson said. If children are exposed to it at high enough levels, lead may cause mental and physical developmental problems.
An estimated 2 million children are affected by lead poisoning each year in the United States. Between March 1992 and April 1993, 203 out of 4,200 children screened at DeKalb County health clinics showed elevated lead levels. Nine of the children were referred to physicians for treatment.
"Parents need to know that eating paint chips (which purportedly taste sweet) isn't the only way children are exposed to lead," Garrettson said. "Most of the children we see at the Toxicology Lab at Hughes Spalding Children's Hospital were exposed via dust created by friction on old paint around windows and doors, or during home renovations."
During the sanding or scraping of walls covered with leaded paint, a significant amount of lead dust is created, he said. Children become exposed either by breathing the dust or, once it has settled to the ground, ingesting it when they put fingers and toys exposed to the floor in their mouths. Garrettson said that paint used for the interiors and exteriors of homes built before about 1950 contains lead, but some lead was found in paints until 1978. The lead-poisoned children he has seen come from several older communities in Atlanta.
Imported ceramics pose a much lesser threat to children, he said. Still, he pointed out that over the past few years, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has recalled eight brands of children's ceramic tea sets manufactured in China.
If parents live in older homes, especially if the homes have been renovated, or if the child has actually been drinking or eating from ceramic cups and dishes, Garrettson recommends the child be tested. Parents should be sure lead levels are measured in the child's blood. After it enters the body, lead circulates in the blood, but is gradually stored in the bones and teeth.
Garrettson reminds parents that there are no obvious symptoms of chronic lead poisoning. Irreversible brain damage including mental retardation and selective deficits in learning, thought and behavior can occur. It's most harmful effect probably is its ability to hinder the connection among important nerve pathways in the brain. These connections are formed during the first five years of life. The greater the lead exposure, the greater the number of disconnected "circuits" -- and the greater the loss in IQ, Garrettson said. Other harmful effects include anemia and abdominal pain. Rarely, in extreme cases, convulsions, coma and even death may occur.
Lorri Preston is a clinical medicine writer in Health Sciences News and Information. The Wellness Column is coordinated by the Seretean Center for Health Promotion.