This Old House: Cute but Dangerous

Any home built before 1978 could pose a very real health threat to your child — here's why

by Jennifer Fallon | Updated 07 Feb 2017 at 10:22 PM

A two-year-old girl in Washington, D.C., was diagnosed last week with one of the worst cases of lead poisoning in decades. Doctors tested Heavenz Luster for lead levels during a routine checkup and found an astonishing 120 micrograms per deciliter, according to reports from Fox News. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that doctors closely monitor children whose levels are five micrograms and higher.

Luster's family was living in a townhouse in Northwest D.C., which they paid for using housing vouchers. The townhouse had failed routine inspections before the family moved in, but the landlord claimed to have fixed the problems. An inspection from the Environmental Protection Agency found that lead paint chips and dust littered the carpet and backyard where Luster loved to play.

About three weeks after moving in, Luster's mother began noticing differences in the girl's behavior — fitful sleeping, increased aggression, speech regression, and poor eating.

"Lead poisoning ranked as low as two micrograms per deciliter will have a cognitive impact on the brain," said Ruth Ann Norton, president and CEO of Green and Health Homes Initiative in Baltimore, Maryland. Norton said that "kids poisoned by lead are seven times more likely to drop out of school" and that they almost always struggle to compete with their classmates on basic skills like reading.

"Every dollar invested in lead poisoning prevention can lead to up to $221 return on investment to the taxpayer," said a healthy homes advocate.

Despite all of the recent conversation about lead-laced water sources, the real risk to children comes from the deterioration of lead-based paint. Almost any house built before 1978 is likely to contain some lead paint, and when this begins to chip, peel, or create dust, children are more likely to be exposed to lead poisoning.

Lead poisoning can permanently alter the trajectory for a child — but taking steps to prevent contamination is worth every penny. "We know that every dollar invested in lead poisoning prevention can lead to up to $221 return on investment to the taxpayer," Norton said.

Families who believe their homes may have problems with lead should apply to the local department for health and human services for testing. Depending on the family's income, this testing may be free. Parents should also make sure their children do not chew on surfaces with chipping paint. Because household dust often contains lead, parents should wet mop and wet-wipe floors and windowsills at least every two weeks. Removing one's shoes while inside will also reduce children's exposure to lead.

Related: Lead Continues to Leach Into the Water

Although most counties and states have laws against lead paint and statutes in place for prevention, enforcement is often lax. In East Chicago, for example, more than 1,000 children are exposed to lead every single day, said Norton.

So far, improved lead standards are slow in making their way across the country. Only the states of Maryland and Rhode Island have specific laws that require heightened lead inspection and treatment standards. The cities of Toledo, Ohio, and Rochester, New York, also have similar standards.

"Lead poisoning [prevention] has been one of the greatest public health successes," said Norton — but there's still much work to be done. "We know exactly how to identify the problem [of lead poisoning] and what it will cost to prevent every child in this country from being poisoned. It has been one of the best moral cases and business cases for investment. It's an incredibly important and achievable issue."

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  3. Fox News
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  10. Rhode Island
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