For residents newly concerned about the potential for lead exposure at home, there are relatively simple ways to check for its presence.
For the home, there are simple paint and water tests available at many stores, and a visit to a primary care doctor is all that is needed for a blood test. The toxic heavy metal has been in the news amid a continuing crisis in Michigan, and a nationwide investigation by Reuters found that San Marino has some of the highest percentage of children in Los Angeles County that show high lead elevations in testing.
“I think it would be very difficult in our area to stay away from it,” said Dr. Alexis Anvekar, who owns a private practice, works at Huntington Hospital and lives in San Marino.
Reuters suggested there could be a multitude of ways children in San Marino and the surrounding areas are exposed to lead. One is the preponderance of homes built before the 1978 nationwide ban on lead-based paint. The report also suggested lead-contaminated foods, medicine, pottery and other items imported from countries, including China, Mexico and India could also be a factor.
But there aren’t any obvious red flags that suggest lead poisoning. Permanent effects are developmental and learning disabilities, but these are virtually impossible to detect before children begin school. Other early symptoms include irritability, weight loss and fatigue that can progress to nausea and vomiting. Adults also can experience memory problems, joint pain or difficulty concentrating.
“These are all nonspecific symptoms that typically occur in all people for a variety of reasons,” Anvekar said.
Prolonged exposure can, in addition to the permanent cognitive effects, result in hearing loss, comas and even death. Although there is no “safe” amount of lead, elevated lead levels are defined as 5 or more micrograms per deciliter of blood.
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: “No safe blood lead level in children has been identified. Even low levels of lead in blood have been shown to affect IQ, ability to pay attention and academic achievement. And effects of lead exposure cannot be corrected.”
The CDC notes that while nearly all homes built before 1978 are likely to contain some lead-based paint, it is only the deterioration of the paint that causes a problem.
“Approximately 24 million housing units have deteriorated leaded paint and elevated levels of lead-contaminated house dust,” the CDC estimates on its website.
Anvekar also explained that younger children are at the highest risk for lead exposure and poisoning due to their small size and how likely they are to ingest the metal. Formula-fed infants, for example, are at the highest risk if they’re drinking formula mixed with lead-contaminated tap water.
Curious toddlers who crawl on the floor and carpets, which can retain dust from deteriorated lead-painted walls, also have higher exposure risk. Their tendency to put things in their mouths, including paint chips, contaminated dirt or toys containing lead, adds to possible exposure.
“Because children generally stop doing that as they get older, the risk decreases,” Anvekar said. “They kind of get past that oral phase.”
The best fix for lead exposure is to identify the source and remove it. In some cases, depending on the level, prescribed medical treatment can help, Anvekar added.
“The body doesn’t really have a good mechanism for getting rid of lead, or any heavy metals for that matter,” Anvekar said. “If you can stop the intake of lead, the body can, over time, start to get it out.”
Blood tests can be done at any pediatrician’s office with a laboratory and, for those curious about their tap water or paint, home test kits can be bought online or at hardware stores. Those who find lead-based paint in their homes should consult professionals about removing it, because haphazardly scraping it off can exacerbate exposure.
For the Reuters report, visit reuters.com/investigates/special-report/usa-lead-la
For a list of certified professionals, visit cdph.ca.gov/programs/clppb/pages/lrccertlist.aspx.