LEAD Action News
3 no 1 Summer 1995.
Can Exposure to Lead Cause ADD?
Jason Bawden-Smith, PhD student,
Very little is known about the spectrum of causes of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder and Attention Deficit Disorder. One possible cause that has come to light in recent years, but has received little attention in Australia, is the role of environmental toxins, especially lead.
Lead is a potent nerve poison that adversely affects many systems in the body. The organ systems that are particularly sensitive to lead are the central nervous system (specifically the brain), the kidney and blood-forming tissues. Recent studies have shown adverse neuro-psychological effects (e.g. reductions in IQ) at blood lead levels previously thought to be safe (10-15 µg/dL [micrograms per decilitre]).
In his landmark study, Needleman (1979) showed that behavioural and performance problems in primary school children which included hyperactivity, distractibility, impulsivity, disorganisation, non-persistence, inability to follow simple instructions and overall poor functioning, were more prevalent with increasing dentine (teeth) lead levels. Furthermore, in a recent long term follow-up study (Needleman et al., 1990), for children who had been exposed to moderate lead levels (greater than 20 ppm [parts per million] in dentine lead) in preschool years, the odds of those children dropping out of high school were seven times higher, and the odds of a significant reading disability were six times higher than for children exposed to lower lead levels. Children exposed to higher lead levels were also shown to have problems with attention and fine motor skills, lower standing in class, increased absenteeism, and lower vocabulary and grammatical-reading scores, even after the investigators controlled for other variables. Sciarillo (1992) found that 2-3 year old children with blood lead levels greater than 15 µg/dL were twice as likely to have sleep problems, were five times more aggressive, four times more destructive and two and a half times more likely to have somatic problems than children with blood lead levels below 15 µg/dL.
It must be stressed that lead is possibly only one of many causes of attention deficits, learning difficulties and behavioural problems in children. However, childhood lead exposure is one problem we know is present in many communities and one we know how to control.
High Risk Groups
In general, infants and children are affected much more by lead exposure than adults since children:
Pregnant women (as surrogates for foetuses) are also a sensitive population and lead workers have long been recognised to be at risk because of excessive exposure.
(The ADD Child in the Classroom, illustration by Anne Roberts)
Sources of lead include:
Ways to reduce exposure
Keep pregnant women and children away from homes (pre 1970's buildings may contain lead-based paints) which are undergoing renovations. Ensure soft furnishings and carpets are removed from the work area or covered by plastic. Do not use equipment that may liberate hazardous dusts and fumes (e.g. sanders, heat guns). Thorough clean-up must be undertaken at the end of the days work and at the completion of the job.The work areas should be vacuumed with a HEPA [high-efficiency particulate air] filter equipped vacuum cleaner, and all surfaces cleaned by wet mopping/wiping.
Dust in ceilings will often be lead contaminated. If cornices are in good condition then the risk of "dust leakage" is probably low and in some cases a worse situation may be created by disturbing the dust. If you are considering building an attic or adding a second storey, dust should be removed.
Many pre-1960 premises may have contaminated soil especially around the perimeter of the dwelling. These areas must not be allowed to be accessed by children and good ground cover (e.g. grass) should be maintained at all times.
Other important measures that help reduce lead hazards include:
Is your child at risk of lead poisoning?
Excessive absorption of lead is one of the most prevalent and preventable childhood health problems in most industrialised countries today. There is considerable evidence that even very low blood levels of lead may have a deleterious effect on the foetuses of pregnant women and on young children .
In response to this evidence the National Health and Medical Research Council in June 1993 set a goal of below 10 µg/dL [equivalent to 0.48 micromoles per litre (1mol/L)] lead in blood, for all Australians. The Council stresses the urgency of achieving this goal in children aged 1-4 years because of the adverse effects on intellectual development. For individual children Council recommended a range of graduated responses depending on blood lead concentrations commencing at 15 µg/dL (education on ways to minimise exposure and reduce absorption and environmental assessment with remediation if appropriate).
Blood lead levels are only a reflection of a child's recent interaction with the environment and not a measure of total lead in a child's body. The level depends on the amount of lead a child absorbs through taking in dust, soil, paint, food, water, or other substances containing lead. Once absorbed, lead is distributed to bones, teeth, soft tissues, hair and other areas of the body. Blood lead levels provide a good indication of recent lead exposure (3 to 4 weeks) and teeth are an indicator of historical exposure. Analysis of lead in hair, while costly, is not a reliable indicator of past exposure, due to possible lead contamination on the outside of the hair, and the lack of long-term epidemiological studies to provide an interpretation of the results.
Which children should be tested?
Most children with lead poisoning show no symptoms unless the child has been recently exposed to very high levels of contamination (blood lead levels of 50 µg/dL).
Children who may be at risk of having elevated lead levels (without an obvious cause for concern) and whom one might consider measuring their lead levels include the following:-
Blood lead levels should be collected by a trained paediatric blood collector on venous blood using proper techniques and lead-free equipment.
The basic management of young children with elevated blood lead levels includes:
What about school age children?
There is increasing evidence that exposure to lead during pre-school years may cause behavioural and learning disorders similar to children diagnosed with ADD (see "Can exposure to lead cause ADD?").
As most children diagnosed with ADD are of school age it is likely that their blood lead levels will be low (remember blood lead levels are only indicative of recent exposure). However, if they were exposed to lead during their first 3-4 years of life (i.e. when they are most at risk) lead would have accumulated in their bones and teeth. Therefore, by measuring dentine (tooth) lead we are able to determine whether children have been previously exposed.
If parents are interested in assessing whether their child has been exposed to lead during earlier life they need to:
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Updated 14 November 2012