In 1995, New Jersey passed a law that every doctor, nurse practitioner, and health care facility in the state must screen for lead poisoning all children under the age of 6 who come to them for their health care. Has your child been tested?
Why should my child be tested?
Lead is a mineral that our bodies cannot use for anything. If it gets into our bodies, it can build up and poison us. In young children, even low levels of lead over time can lead to hearing loss, hyperactivity, lower intelligence, attention deficit, and problems in school. Very high levels of lead in the body can cause seizures, severe brain damage that results in mental retardation, coma, and even death.
Unborn babies and young children under 6 years old are the most at risk for lead poisoning. They are more likely to come into contact with lead in their environment when they are crawling or putting things into their mouths. And because their bodies and brains are still physically developing, they may be permanently affected by what gets into their bodies.
Young children also absorb more lead into their brains, bones, kidneys, and other organs than adults and older children. The human brain is growing the fastest when we are between birth and 3 years old, when the connections in our nervous system are developing. These connections control how we think and learn, how we move, how we hear, and how we behave. That is why getting lead poisoning as a young child can have such a devastating impact on a person’s lifelong health and ability to function.
Many of the symptoms of lead poisoning often look the same as less serious illnesses. For example, at very low levels, lead can cause stomach pain, irritability, sleeplessness, and anemia. So it is critical that we test all young children’s blood for lead poisoning.
How can the lead get into my child?
The most common way that lead gets into our environment is through lead-based paint, which was banned for sale in New Jersey in 1971, but not until 1978 in the rest of the country. But lead-based paint sold before that date was still used all over the country for a long time afterward, including in New Jersey. And there are still many buildings and other structures with coats of lead-based paint. Most older buildings in New Jersey still have some lead-based paint, and the lead-based paint that was used before 1950 contains the most lead.
Even though paint chips are dangerous because they can contain a large amount of lead, eating the paint itself is not the most common way that a child gets lead poisoning. More dangerous is the unseen lead in fine household dust and dirt that has been contaminated by lead-based paint. The lead particles get into the dust from the paint on surfaces that are either flaking and peeling or loosened by abrasive action, such as rubbing with a dry cloth or when windows are opened and closed. Children breathe in and swallow this dust, and easily absorb it into their bodies.
Lead that cannot be seen also gets into outside dirt from several sources, including peeling house paint, the removal of houses or other buildings that contained lead, and gasoline that settled into the dirt before 1976 (when lead in gasoline was banned). There is no way to get lead out of dirt—the dirt has to be removed.
Lead is also present in many other places in the environment that can poison children—and adults. For example, lead can be found in drinking water that sits in lead pipes or pipes with lead solder. Lead solder in drinking systems was banned in 1986, but the water pipes in many buildings still contain it.
We may also find lead in many products that we use in our homes and businesses. And it is often in foods from other countries. Some toys that are made in other countries contain lead. And many types of pottery and cookware imported from other countries contain lead-based paint or glazes that can come off and be ingested along with the food they hold. The United States did not set a limit for lead in dishes until the early 1980s, so older ceramic dishware made here may also contain lead.
Many products that contain lead are not as obvious. For example, some vinyl mini-blinds from other countries contain lead. And some foreign-made eyeliners and paints used to decorate women’s eyes in some cultures contain lead. Also, many foods and their containers imported from other countries contain lead, such as candies and canned goods and the wrappers and cans that they come in. Many candies made in Mexico and other countries contain chili as an ingredient. The chili becomes contaminated with lead in the dirt and dust where it grows, which makes the candy highly toxic.
Often the print on plastic bags contains lead. These bags should not be re-used. And the colored print in comic books and in newspapers often contains lead. Children should always wash their hands before eating.
It does not matter what the lead is contained in: Lead is poisonous when it enters the body. And it is more dangerous when it enters the body of an unborn baby or a young child.
How can I get my child tested?
A child between the ages of 6 months and one year who has been exposed to a lead hazard, such as peeling paint or living in an older house or apartment that was renovated without precautions to control lead dust, should be tested for lead as soon as possible. Otherwise, all children should be tested for lead poisoning when they are about 12 months old and again at 24 months. A child between 24 months and 6 years old who has never been tested should be.
There are no specific “safe” or “normal” blood lead levels. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention currently recommend that children follow up with a doctor if their blood lead level is 5 micrograms of lead per deciliter of blood (5 µg/dL) or more.
If your child has Medicaid, NJ FamilyCare, or another type of commercial insurance (for example, group insurance through an employer) and has not been tested according to the above schedule, or you are not sure if your child has been tested, contact your pediatrician’s office. Ask the nurse for an appointment or to tell you when your child was tested and the results.
If you have health coverage through Medicaid or NJ FamilyCare, the cost of lead testing and any follow-up treatment your child might need will be covered. In 1995, New Jersey passed a law to also require all commercial health insurers that cover groups of 50 or more people to cover the cost of lead screening (and immunizations) without any deductibles.
If you have no insurance coverage for your child and cannot afford to pay, you may call your local public health department for a free test. Call your municipal center or town hall if you cannot find the number for your town’s health department, or call the New Jersey Department of Health and Senior Services at 609-292-5666. Or you may have your child tested at a federally qualified health center (for locations, check the NJPCA website).
The test for determining the blood level of lead takes only about 10 minutes, and the final results are back in a week.
What can I do if my child has high levels of lead?
By law, laboratories must report the names and locations of children who tested positive for high levels of lead to the New Jersey Department of Health and Senior Services. The state must then contact the public health department of the town where the child lives. The health department will send a public health nurse to the residence to inform the family of the test result and to arrange for medical treatment.
The local public health department must also send an inspector to locate and identify the lead hazards in the home, send a report to the property owner/landlord, and inform the owner/landlord that he or she is required by law to remove the hazards. If necessary, the public health department will take the property owner to court to force the owner to remove the hazards.
Are you pregnant?
If you are pregnant, lead can be dangerous to you and your baby. Lead in the bones of a pregnant woman goes through to the developing fetus in her womb. Unborn babies exposed to lead are often born prematurely and with low birth weights. The harmful effects of lead during pregnancy have been found in babies even a year after they were born.
Pregnant mothers who think they are being exposed to lead should consider testing their homes. Residents of some counties and cities in New Jersey may be eligible for free kits to test their homes for lead-contaminated dust. If you live in Atlantic, Burlington, Camden, Cape May, Cumberland, Gloucester, or Salem County, call the Southern New Jersey Perinatal Consortium at 1-856-665-6000. If you live in any part of Union County except for the City of Elizabeth, call the Muhlenberg Campus of JFK Medical Center at 908-668-2780. If you live in Newark, call the Newark Department of Child and Family Well-Being at 973-733-5323. You can also buy kits to test your home for lead. Two testing kits are:
This information last reviewed: Apr 11, 2014