Lead: An omnipresent poison

You may be surprised at all the places lead might be lurking in your home. Or the everyday items that contain lead. Or the impact some say it can have on a child's IQ.

Published January 13, 2008

When Joe Zwissler enters a home with his X-ray gun, he knows he's likely to find what he is looking for somewhere. It's just a matter of where.

Zwissler hunts for lead, a metal that in extremely high doses can kill young children.

Recently, Samantha Staley, eight months pregnant, summoned Zwissler to the 1920s house she and her boyfriend are renting in St. Petersburg.

Like many parents today, they're worried: Many items they once thought safe may now pose a lead hazard, concerns sparked by the seemingly endless toy recalls.

As Zwissler, 51, points his X-ray fluorescence analyzer throughout the house, Staley and her boyfriend, Shayne Mills, pull out other items for him to check: a sunset-colored fruit bowl, baby spoons, a rattle, a ceramic music box for the baby's room, chess sets from Poland and Peru.

What Zwissler finds will shock Staley and Mills and force them to make a tough decision: Will they have to find a new home just a month before the baby is due?

"We're new parents," Staley said. "We're freaking out about everything. Why do we have to worry about lead?"

* * *

Lead's greatest victims are children under 6 years of age. It is easily absorbed into their growing bodies, and affects the developing brain, the central nervous system and the kidneys.

Up until about 15 years ago, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention required pediatricians to routinely screen infants' blood for lead.

After lead was removed from gasoline and paint in the 1970s, the number of kids with lead poisoning dropped. The screening requirement was scrapped -- except for children on Medicaid who are more likely to live in older homes with lead paint.

But some experts talk about a hidden danger that may lurk in its place: low-level lead exposure. Some doctors believe it may be on the upswing as lead-tainted toys and other consumer products have made their way into American stores from places like China in the past few years.

The American Academy of Pediatrics estimates at least a million children in the United States have been exposed to lead.

"I think we're seeing the tip of the iceberg of how many kids are in the (low) blood lead level," said Dr. James R. Roberts, associate professor of pediatrics at the Medical University of South Carolina and co-author of an American Academy of Pediatrics policy statement on lead. "Many children don't get tested unless there's a problem. ... But I think we're getting more and more parents who are concerned enough that they're starting to ask for a lead test."

The CDC identifies any blood lead level of more than 10 micrograms per deciliter as a "level of concern." But studies published in the New England Journal of Medicine have found that children with even a small dose of lead in their system -- anything up to 10 micrograms -- can lose up to 7 or 8 IQ points.

Not everyone believes low-level lead exposure in children is a growing problem.

Dr. James V. Hillman, founder of the Poison Control Center in Tampa, believes it's unlikely doctors are missing it.

"It would take a lot of mouthing (of toys) over some period of time to ingest enough lead to cause a problem," he said.

But both doctors agree detecting it is a challenge because a blood test will only reveal exposure in the last few months.

And removing lead is recommended only in children with extremely high levels because it's difficult -- and traumatic.

Consider 5-year-old Noah Breakiron.

* * *

As a baby, Noah was fussy, chronically sick, constantly sporting a runny nose, always on antibiotics.

As time passed, he grew increasingly difficult. A trip to the grocery store was only accomplished with both parents -- one to finish shopping while the other carried out a kicking and screaming Noah.

His parents stopped taking him out. "We became prisoners in our own home," said Rob Breakiron, 39.

They worried about Noah's development and communicating with him was hard.

Finally, when Noah was 3, a doctor diagnosed him with autism. His parents took him to Dr. David Berger, a Tampa pediatrician who specializes in autism.

But Berger suspected lead or some other heavy metal might be causing Noah's health problems. Too much of a toxic metal can cause autism-like symptoms.

Berger ran Noah through a battery of tests, including for lead exposure. He tested positive for high quantities of lead.

"I'm thinking: lead! Where did he get lead from?" said Breakiron, a pharmaceutical representative.

A lead investigator inspected the family's 5-year-old home -- and found nothing.

The Breakirons began to suspect some bath toys that he often put in his mouth. But most of Noah's baby toys were tossed so they will likely never know the source of the lead.

A year ago, Berger put Noah on a chelation treatment -- alternating treatments of intravenous drugs twice a week or suppositories three times a week.

It pained Noah's parents to have to hold him down while a needle was inserted in his arm or he received the suppository.

"He's been poked and prodded and had way too many doctor's appointments for a 4-year-old," Breakiron said, "but at the end of the day, it worked beautifully for him."

Today, with the lead mostly gone from his body, Noah is a dramatically different child. His verbal skills have exploded, he is more social and he's potty trained.

His behavior improved so much the family recently took their first vacations to Busch Gardens and Disney World.

"It was a turning point in our lives," said Breakiron. "I'm not sure how we got on this path or why this happened to us, but he's doing so much better."

Noah now plays with plain brown blocks and a Playmobil airplane from Germany. Toys made in China are no longer in the house.

Berger thinks pediatricians should return to screening all infants for lead. In the past year, he has begun to do so.

The CDC also believes that low-level lead exposure is a growing concern. But they say it is not necessary for all children to be tested because the dangerous treatment is not recommended at these low levels, said Dr. Mary Jean Brown, head of the CDC's lead poisoning prevention branch.

Ultimately, the only way to eliminate low-level lead exposure is to remove the source of lead.

"This is an intervention that has to be done society-wide," said Dr. Roberts, "working with manufacturers' importers to make sure toys are safe when they get here rather than making parents figure it out."

* * *

Samantha Staley, 34, and Shayne Mills, 38, feel that they have no choice but to figure it out. They're trying to keep lead from reaching their unborn child, a girl to be named Sierra.

It seems a daunting task.

"Now I'm thinking about all the gifts I got at the baby shower," says Stayley. "What toys are safe? What toys aren't safe?"

She and Mills found out their St. Petersburg rental home may contain lead when they signed the lease in mid November.

They knew little about lead, but grew concerned. They learned of a Pinellas County Health Department program: pay $75 to $125 and a lead investigator would search their home for lead.

Joe Zwissler has been an environmental specialist with the Health Department for 16 years. The X-ray analyzer he uses can detect lead through layers of paint, plastic, wood, soil or other materials.

Zwissler has found lead in the oddest places. He traced a doctor's lead poisoning to the pewter place mat the man had eaten off for 20 years. He figured another woman's high lead levels might have been caused by the salsa bowl she replenished every day and stored in her fridge. The salsa ate away at the bowl's glaze allowing the lead to leach into the dip. He told a mother that her baby's lead poisoning was likely caused by crystal rhinestones she was using to make handbags and belts on her kitchen table -- where the family ate.

At Stayley and Mills' home, Zwissler finds lead on the doors, the windows, the kitchen wall, some tiles in the bathroom.

The bedroom window in the baby's room is particularly high in lead. He uses a dust wipe to swipe a sample from the floor below the window where the baby may crawl. He'll test it later.

Zwissler then tests the couple's household items.

The baby spoons and the rattle? Negative.

The chess sets from Poland and Peru? A trace amount.

The serving bowl she uses for fruit? Too much for comfort.

The San Francisco music box the new mom had planned to put on the baby's dresser? Don't put it there.

Zwissler also finds a lot of lead in Mills' cream-colored University of Southern California fraternity beer mug.

"I drank a lot of beer out of that, I mean beer after beer," Mills says.

He originally thought his girlfriend was overreacting. Now the father-to-be is worried.

A few days later, Zwissler calls back with the results of the dust in the baby's room -- a high lead reading, too high for comfort.

The landlord tells Staley and Mills that she can't afford the tens of thousands of dollars it will cost to remove the lead from the home. She would rather have them move out to be safe.

So with weeks to go before Sierra arrives, Staley and Mills begin looking for another place.

"The idea of moving again, it's just the last thing I want, " Staley said. "But when you're talking about the life of a child, you can't afford to mess around. It doesn't matter if we have to move 10 times. You do what's right for the child."

Times researcher Angie Drobnic Holan contributed to this report.