Humans discovered the usefulness of lead centuries ago. Abundantly available, easily molded and extremely resistant to corrosion, lead was considered ideal for many uses, including insecticides, paint pigment, soldering for canned foods, and pipes for plumbing.
Scientists were aware that acute lead toxicity caused by high levels of lead absorption could cause significant health problems and even death, but it was not until the 1970s that it became clear that chronic exposure to low levels of lead could also have significant long-term health effects, particularly cognitive and behavioral impairment. Children are particularly vulnerable because of their developing nervous systems.
Aggressive steps were taken to reduce the amount of lead in the environment. Lead-based paint was banned in 1978, lead pipes for plumbing have been restricted since 1988, and lead-based gasoline was phased out and ultimately banned in 1995.
Water supplies are subject to strict regulation and lead levels are monitored closely in schools and daycares. Occupational exposure is also closely monitored. These measures have been highly successful: mean blood lead levels have decreased almost 80 percent from 1976 to 1991.
Today, other than occupational exposure, the most common sources of lead are found in the paint and pipes of old buildings, and in glazed pottery, some makeup, and folk medicine, especially from other countries.
It is recommended that children be screened for lead by age 2, particularly if they live in a building that was built before 1978. This way, intervention can be taken before long-term problems occur. Ask your doctor to screen your child for lead exposure.
Watch out for lead in your home, particularly if your house is older. When old paint cracks and peels, it creates dangerous, almost invisible dust particles that you absorb just by breathing. Watch your children, especially babies (who like to put things in their mouths), who might try to eat paint chips. Home repairs like sanding or scraping paint can also create dangerous lead dust. You should not be in the house while someone is cleaning up after renovations, painting, or remodeling a room with lead paint.
Talk to your doctor about any medicines or vitamins you take. Some folk medicines and dietary supplements may have lead in them. Use caution when eating candies, spices, and other foods from foreign countries, especially if they appear to be noncommercial products.
Avoid using imported lead-glazed ceramic pottery produced in cottage industries, leaded crystal, and/or pewter or brass containers or utensils to cook, serve or store food. Do not use dishes that are chipped or cracked.
Overall, the rapid decrease of lead exposure in the environment in this country has been the remarkable result of a thorough public health campaign. Let's continue to be diligent and ensure that everyone, especially children, is protected from the effects of lead toxicity.