Lead plays an important part in our hi-tech society. Computers, car batteries -- even the world's finest china contains this element. While lead is useful, it can also be deadly. For years, lead was used in house paint, which can poison young children.
Children can be exposed to lead poisoning in any number of ways -- through water, for example. But experts agree the most common cause of lead poisoning in children is deteriorating lead-based paint. It's an issue that is being addressed worldwide.
Wendy Cleland-Hamnett is with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, or EPA. "We are working with other countries in North America, with Canada and Mexico as well as other countries around the world to provide technical assistance on lead-based paint."
Lead paint was banned in the United States in 1978, but it still can be found in older homes in some U.S. cities.
Jeff Rook, Executive Director of the non-profit group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, says it is a particular problem in some parts of the United States. "A lot of the cities that are in what are called the 'Rust Belt' -- the older industrial cities in the Midwest, but also on the East Coast."
Children under the age of seven are especially vulnerable to lead paint poisoning. They may chew on the peeling paint, or inhale lead from dust in the air.
At low levels, ingested lead can cause decreased intelligence, stunted growth and poor hearing. At higher levels, it can lead to coma, convulsions -- and death.
One option for parents living in homes with lead-based paint is to remove the paint. The process is called abatement. Ms. Cleland-Hamnett of the EPA said, "Abatement is more expensive than managing the lead in place, just because of the activities involved." She says abatement is not prohibitively expensive.
But Mr. Rook says, "In many instances, the homeowner, when they have a repair, they'll shop around to see who can do it the quickest. If they don't know the danger, they're not going to require the person [contractor] to have some sort of lead abatement expertise."
The EPA, which seeks to eliminate all childhood lead poisoning by 2010, has launched an outreach and education campaign targeting, among other groups, parents of young children.
Children at risk of lead poisoning are supposed to get their blood checked regularly. "I think it is important for children to be screened, to ensure they don't have high levels of lead in their blood," emphasized Ms. Cleland-Hamnett.
But according to a study done in the U.S. state Michigan that is not always done. Doctor Alex Kemper is with the University of Michigan. "We identified about 3,600 kids [children] who had elevated blood lead levels in Michigan and we found out of those children, only about half of them had follow-up testing."
One theory for the low testing numbers among certain high-risk children, such as low-income Black and Hispanic families, is that they don't have "medical homes." That is, they don't have one place for getting medical care, or one place where the medical staff has access to all their records.
But all families that may be exposed to lead paint must take preventative action, says Mr. Rook. "There's no way to, or it's very difficult to, sort of purify your blood, and kind of walk it back."
It is recommended to dust and scrub around the house frequently to keep lead particles out of the air, or from settling on objects a child could put in its mouth. U.S.