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A Network of Experts in Children’s Environmental Health


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Heavy Metals

 

The term "Heavy Metals" is generally interpreted to include those metals from periodic table groups IIA through VIA. Semi-metallic elements like arsenic are often included in this classification. At trace levels, many of these elements are necessary to support life. However, at elevated levels they become toxic, may build up in biological systems, and become a significant health hazard.

 

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 Heavy Metals--Lead  

Lead has long been recognized as a harmful environmental pollutant. In late 1991, the Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services called lead the "number one environmental threat to the health of children in the United States." There are many ways in which humans are exposed to lead: through air, drinking water, food, contaminated soil, deteriorating paint, and dust. Airborne lead enters the body when an individual breathes or swallows lead particles or dust once it has settled. Before it was known how harmful lead could be, it was used in paint, gasoline, water pipes, and many other products.

Old lead-based paint is the most significant source of lead exposure in the U.S. today. Harmful exposures to lead can be created when lead-based paint is improperly removed from surfaces by dry scraping, sanding, or open-flame burning. High concentrations of airborne lead particles in homes can also result from lead dust from outdoor sources, including contaminated soil tracked inside, and use of lead in certain indoor activities such as soldering and stained-glass making.

Sources of Lead: Lead-based paint, contaminated soil, dust, and drinking water.

Lead Health Effects Lead affects practically all systems within the body. Lead at high levels (lead levels at or above 80 micrograms per deciliter (80 µg/dl) of blood) can cause convulsions, coma, and even death. Lower levels of lead can cause adverse health effects on the central nervous system, kidney, and blood cells. Blood lead levels as low as 10 µg/dl can impair mental and physical development.

The effects of lead exposure on fetuses and young children can be severe. They include delays in physical and mental development, lower IQ levels, shortened attention spans, and increased behavioral problems. Fetuses, infants, and children are more vulnerable to lead exposure than adults since lead is more easily absorbed into growing bodies, and the tissues of small children are more sensitive to the damaging effects of lead. Children may have higher exposures since they are more likely to get lead dust on their hands and then put their fingers or other lead-contaminated objects into their mouths.

Get your child tested for lead exposure. To find out where to do this, call your doctor or local health clinic. For more information on health effects, get a copy of the Centers for Disease Control's "Preventing Lead Poisoning in Young Children."

Steps to Reduce Exposure to Lead:

·         Keep areas where children play as dust-free and clean as possible.

·         Leave lead-based paint undisturbed if it is in good condition; do not sand or burn off paint that may contain lead.

·         Do not remove lead paint yourself.

·         Do not bring lead dust into the home.

·         If your work or hobby involves lead, change clothes and use doormats before entering your home.

·         Eat a balanced diet, rich in calcium and iron.

·         Keep areas where children play as dust-free and clean as possible.

·         Mop floors and wipe window ledges and chewable surfaces such as cribs with a solution of powdered automatic dishwasher detergent in warm water. (Dishwasher detergents are recommended because of their high content of phosphate.) Most multi-purpose cleaners will not remove lead in ordinary dust. Wash toys and stuffed animals regularly. Make sure that children wash their hands before meals, nap time, and bedtime.

·         Reduce the risk from lead-based paint. Most homes built before 1960 contain heavily leaded paint. Some homes built as recently as 1978 may also contain lead paint. This paint could be on window frames, walls, the outside of homes, or other surfaces. Do not burn painted wood since it may contain lead.

·         Leave lead-based paint undisturbed if it is in good condition, do not sand or burn off paint that may contain lead. Lead paint in good condition is usually not a problem except in places where painted surfaces rub against each other and create dust (for example, opening a window).

·         Do not remove lead paint yourself. Individuals have been poisoned by scraping or sanding lead paint because these activities generate large amounts of lead dust. Consult your state health or housing department for suggestions on which private laboratories or public agencies may be able to help test your home for lead in paint. Home test kits cannot detect small amounts of lead under some conditions. Hire a person with special training for correcting lead paint problems to remove lead-based paint. Occupants, especially children and pregnant women, should leave the building until all work is finished and clean-up is done.

·         For additional information dealing with lead-based paint abatement contact the Department of Housing and Urban Development for the following two documents: Comprehensive and Workable Plan for the Abatement of Lead-Based Paint in Privately Owned Housing: Report to Congress (December 7, 1990) and Lead-Based Paint: Interim Guidelines for Hazard Identification and Abatement in Public and Indian Housing (September 1990).

·         Do not bring lead dust into the home. If you work in construction, demolition, painting, with batteries, in a radiator repair shop or lead factory, or your hobby involves lead, you may unknowingly bring lead into your home on your hands or clothes. You may also be tracking in lead from soil around your home. Soil very close to homes may be contaminated from lead paint on the outside of the building. Soil by roads and highways may be contaminated from years of exhaust fumes from cars and trucks that used leaded gas. Use door mats to wipe your feet before entering the home. If you work with lead in your job or a hobby, change your clothes before you go home and wash these clothes separately. Encourage your children to play in sand and grassy areas instead of dirt which sticks to fingers and toys. Try to keep your children from eating dirt, and make sure they wash their hands when they come inside.

·         Find out about lead in drinking water. Most well and city water does not usually contain lead. Water usually picks up lead inside the home from household plumbing that is made with lead materials. The only way to know if there is lead in drinking water is to have it tested. Contact the local health department or the water supplier to find out how to get the water tested. Send for the EPA pamphlet, Lead and Your Drinking Water, for more information about what you can do if you have lead in your drinking water. Call EPA's Safe Drinking Water Hotline (800-426-4791) for more information.

·         Eat right. A child who gets enough iron and calcium will absorb less lead. Foods rich in iron include eggs, red meats, and beans. Dairy products are high in calcium. Do not store food or liquid in lead crystal glassware or imported or old pottery. If you reuse old plastic bags to store or carry food, keep the printing on the outside of the bag.

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 Heavy Metals--Arsenic  

Arsenic is a naturally occurring element widely distributed in the earth's crust. In the environment, arsenic is combined with oxygen, chlorine, and sulfur to form inorganic arsenic compounds. Arsenic in animals and plants combines with carbon and hydrogen to form organic arsenic compounds. Inorganic arsenic compounds are mainly used to preserve wood. Organic arsenic compounds are used as pesticides, primarily on cotton plants.

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 Heavy Metals--Mercury  

Mercury is a naturally occurring element that is present throughout the environment. Human activity can release some of that mercury into the air, water and soil. In the U.S., coal-fired power plants are the biggest source of mercury emissions to the air.

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