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Protect Your Children from Lead Poisoning

General information

Lead is a poison. Lead is harmful even in very small amounts, and it is most dangerous for young children.

The San Mateo County Lead Prevention Program’s mission is to prevent lead exposure for young children. We provide case management support around reducing lead exposure as well as other preventative services that families may need, such as referrals to community resources. Home visits and services are provided by Public Health Nurses and Senior Community Workers.  

Services include:   

  • Home visit to identify triggers and provide education around preventing exposure.  
  • Developing plan with families to address concerns.  
  • Support around scheduling blood level lead tests.  
  • Collaborate with medical providers and Environmental Health Dept. 

Lead Basics

What is Lead? 

Lead is a naturally occurring metal that has been used in many products. But lead is harmful to the human body and there is no known safe level of lead in the body. Lead poisoning is when there is a buildup of lead in the body. Small amounts of lead can cause lifelong learning and behavior problems. Lead poisoning is the most common environmental illness in California children. However, lead poisoning is 100% preventable! 

What is the risk? 

Children under six years old are at greatest risk of harmful health effects from lead poisoning because their brains and nervous system are still forming. Lead can lead to anemia and even small amounts of lead in the body can make it hard for children to learn, pay attention, and succeed in school. Most children who have lead poisoning do not look or act sick. Symptoms, if present, may be confused with common childhood complaints, such as stomach aches, crankiness, headaches, or loss of appetite. Higher amounts of lead exposure can damage the nervous system, kidneys, and other major organs. Very high exposure can lead to seizures or death.    

Common sources of lead exposure 

There are many common sources of lead. Some examples include:  

  • If your home was built before 1978, interior/exterior paint may contain lead. Children may eat paint chips or chew on surfaces, windows, walls, etc.  
  • Lead contaminated soil where children play.  
  • Work clothes or equipment.  
  • Imported home remedies, cosmetics, pottery, ceramics, utensils, glazed food containers, candy, food, spices, may contain lead.  

These are just some examples of sources of lead exposure. For more information, contact SMC Lead Prevention Program at (650) 573-2877. 

Reducing hazards 

Lead poisoning is preventable and there are many things you can do in your home to protect your child from lead poisoning. This includes:  

  • Washing your child’s hands and face frequently, especially before eating.  
  • Take off your shoes or wipe them on a mat before entering the house. This will help prevent lead dust and soil from getting into your home.  
  • Clean up paint chips and peeling paint safely. The San Mateo County Lead Prevention Program can give you information on safe cleaning.  
  • Avoid using handmade, older, imported dishes or crystal for food or drink preparation, storage, or serving, unless you are sure they do not contain lead. 

For Pregnant Women

Lead can pass from a parent to their unborn baby. If an adult has been exposed to lead over a long time or has had high levels of lead in their blood in the past, the lead stored in their bones can be released into the blood during pregnancy. This means that the level of lead in their blood can start to increase during pregnancy. If a person is exposed to lead during their pregnancy, their developing baby can also be exposed. The good news is that lead exposure is preventable. Now is the time to keep your baby safe from lead poisoning. 

Lead in the blood during pregnancy can: 

  • Increase risk for miscarriage 
  • Cause the baby to be born too early or too small 
  • Hurt the baby’s brain, kidneys, and nervous system 
  • Cause the child to have learning or behavior problems 

If you are pregnant and think you may have been exposed to lead, talk to your healthcare provider about getting a blood lead test. Based on your blood lead test result, your doctor may recommend finding and removing lead from your environment, eating a diet high in iron and calcium, and scheduling follow-up blood lead testing. Additional information can be found on the CDC Lead website.

Lead Testing

When to get tested 

State Guidance recommended that all children get tested at 1 and 2 years. Even if child is older than 2, families are still recommended to get child tested for lead. New immigrants and refugees that come into the U.S., are recommended to get tested for lead as a precaution. 

What testing entails 

A small venous blood draw performed by the medical provider to determine the level of lead in blood. If the level of lead is found to be high, your child’s information will be sent to the SMC Lead Program, and you will be contacted to discuss next steps.  

How to get tested for lead 

Speak to your child’s medical provider to request a lead test appointment. If your child does not have medical insurance, consider applying for Medi-Cal through Human Services Agency. If your child has HPSM, here is a link to a list of providers.  

For Medical Providers

State Updates/Most Recent Guidance 

State Guidance recommended that all children get tested at 1 and 2 years. Even if child is older than 2, families are still recommended to get child tested for lead. Lead test must be a venous test. Please refer to the document “California Management Guidelines on Childhood Lead Poisoning for Healthcare Providers” for instructions on how to treat children with elevated blood lead level (BLL).

Additional information is available at the CDPH Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention Branch website.

For Patients Who Are Recent Refugee Arrivals 

CDC guidance for incoming refugees (Post-Arrival lead screening):   

  • Check BLL of all refugee children 6 months to 6 years of age upon arrival to US (generally within 90 days, preferably within 30 days of arrival).  
  • Within 3-6 months post resettlement: A follow up lead test should be conducted on all refugee children age 6mos to 6 years of age, regardless of initial screening BLL results.   
For Patients Who Are Pregnant 

If your patient is pregnant, talk to them about the importance of avoiding lead exposure. If there is a concern that your patient has been exposed to lead, talk to them about completing a blood lead test.  

Lead in the blood during pregnancy can:  

  • Increase risk for miscarriage  
  • Cause the baby to be born too early or too small  
  • Hurt the baby’s brain, kidneys, and nervous system  
  • Cause the child to have learning or behavior problems 

Please refer to CDC website on lead and pregnant women for more information, including Guidelines for the Identification and Management of Lead Exposure in Pregnant and Lactating Women.

Additional Resources

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Provider Information