Lead Poisoning: Protecting Children From this Toxic Foe

By Savannah Edgens
Image of apple sauce on the counter in a glass bowl

When people think of lead poisoning, they often think of stories about lead paint poisoning from homes built in the 1970s. In 2024, it is not necessarily high on the list of concerns for most. In an age where there is more knowledge and care for environmentally friendly products and organic food, lead poisoning can often seem like a thing of the past.

While it is true that lead poisoning is rare, it still poses a risk to adults and children. In fact, lead was recently found in cinnamon applesauce pouches commonly packed in children’s lunches. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reported 321 cases of lead poisoning from applesauce in November of 2023. So how can parents become aware of lead exposure and protect their children?

Sources of lead poisoning

According to the CDC, children can be exposed to lead from many sources including:

  • Paint
  • Soil
  • Drinking water
  • Consumer products such as toys, jewelry and antiques
  • Foods, cosmetics and traditional medicines imported from other countries

What happens if you get lead poisoning?

Lead can quickly enter the blood stream and harm an individual’s health. This threat is even greater in children and is fast-acting. Children under the age of 6 are at greatest risk for health problems from lead exposure, according to the CDC. Once the exposure stops, the lead levels in the blood gradually decrease. However, lead can also be stored in the bones, and it can take decades for lead levels in the bones to decrease.

Short- term signs of lead toxicity

According to the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA):

  • Headache
  • Abdominal pain/colic
  • Vomiting and anemia

Long-term lead exposure can result in:

  • Irritability
  • Lethargy
  • Fatigue
  • Muscle aches/pains
  • Constipation
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Tremors
  • Weight loss

In November, an FDA investigation found high levels of lead in cinnamon spice in the applesauce pouches. In total, three cinnamon applesauce brands have been recalled as of Jan. 5 as a result of the high levels of lead:

  • WanaBana apple cinnamon fruit puree pouches
  • Schnucks-brand cinnamon applesauce pouches and variety packs
  • Weis-brand cinnamon applesauce pouches

This recent case reminds us that lead poisoning is still a risk, and you can prevent lead exposure. The CDC has defined primary and secondary lead exposure prevention. Primary lead prevention is removing lead hazards from the environment before exposure. While laboratory testing is the only way to identify lead levels, there are things parents can do to be aware and prevent lead exposure in children. Secondary prevention involves blood testing and follow-up care.

What can I do to prevent exposure?

Check toy recalls and safety news from the Consumer Product and Safety Commission.

Children, especially children under 6, are notorious for putting toys, jewelry and other items in their mouth. This is why it is essential to choose toys meant for each child’s specific age group. The Florida Department of Health advises washing children’s toys often in warm soapy water. This can eliminate bacteria and reduce risk of exposure to things like lead and other toxins.

Keep children away from contaminated soil.

This may seem impossible as children love to get dirty, and playing outside is one
of the best ways to boost their immune systems. However, it is possible to prevent lead exposure through soil in a few different ways. According to the CDC, homes near major highways, airports and infrastructure could have higher levels of lead in the surrounding soil from leaded gasoline, leaks from underground storage tanks and deteriorating lead-based paint around buildings and old playground equipment. The Florida Department of Health advises covering bare soil with wood chips, grass and mulch to reduce children’s risk of exposure from soil.

What do I do if my child has been exposed to/consumed lead?

If your child has ingested lead or been exposed through soil, water or other ways, consult your child’s healthcare provider.

Nemours KidsHealth Journal recommends:

  • Simple blood tests to diagnose lead poisoning. Doctors can do lead tests when children are as young as 1 or 2 years old, and this can be done during regular checkups.
  • Doctors may also recommend lead tests for kids who may have had a known exposure (the Flint water crisis for example) or are at higher risk for exposure due to living in older homes or their parents’ employment.
  • Calcium, iron and vitamin C are all part of a balanced diet. These vitamins and nutrients also help decrease how much lead the body absorbs.

Have tap water tested for lead.

Drinking water is another common source of lead poisoning in children, according to the CDC. As evidenced by the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, water supplies can change, and pipes can corrode. It is important to have tap water tested if water sources or conditions are not known. The Florida Department of Health advises only using cold water from the tap for drinking, cooking and making baby formula. Water that comes out of the tap warm or hot can have higher concentrations of lead, and boiling water will not reduce the amount of lead in water.

Lead poisoning treatment

If your child has lead poisoning, it is important to prevent further exposure. If one child has been exposed, Nemours KidsHealth advises that all siblings should also be tested. The CDC notes that there are no “safe” lead levels. Consult your child’s healthcare provider about treatment and lead testing. Most healthcare providers and local health departments can test for lead in the blood. For updates and health related concerns about applesauce pouches containing lead, visit the CDC and FDA websites for the most up-to-date information and how to file an official complaint if you or your child has consumed recalled fruit pouches.

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