For the past 30 years, Happiest Baby’s co-founders Nina Montée Karp and Dr. Harvey Karp have been fierce advocates and activists for a healthier environment—especially for children, our most vulnerable citizens. As longtime board members of the Environmental Working Group (EWG), they joke that they were “green” when green was only a color!

Here, Nina and Harvey discuss a real threat to our children: lead exposure. Nina and Harvey hope that by sharing their conversation, they can raise awareness about this serious issue and guide parents to make informed decisions that help protect their family’s health. 

Nina Montée Karp: Harvey, let’s start with the basics—what is lead?

Dr. Harvey Karp: Lead is a naturally occurring heavy metal that’s actually a potent neurotoxin. That means it damages the cells in our brain and nervous system (it also affects, the blood, kidneys, etc.). Once lead is in your body, it stays there. So, the damage builds up in the body over time causing ongoing harm.

Nina Montée Karp: Where can lead be found?

Dr. Harvey Karp: Lead can be found in so many places! Lead is in the air, soil, water—and even in our food due to contaminated runoff and inside our homes thanks to lead-based paint and lead from old water mains or plumbing fixtures. Faucets installed before 1997 often contain up to 8% lead. 

Lead contamination of drinking water remains a serious risk to children’s health for many communities. If you live near a busy street or highway, there may be lead in your yard from leaded gasoline that was commonly used for 50 years (mostly phased out by 1975). And, there is lead in paint. In America, 24% of homes built from 1960 to 1977 contain lead paint—and for older homes, that can go as high as 87%. Paint dust in window wells and chips of pain from doors and walls can have very high levels of lead. (Those paint chips have a slightly sweet taste, which can lead toddlers to eat them). Lead is also found in toys, jewelry, fishing sinkers, stained glass solder, old painted furniture, and glazed pottery—especially if made in another country.

Nina Montée Karp: How can lead harm our children?

Dr. Harvey Karp: There is no safe level of exposure to lead, which means even tiny amounts of lead in kids’ bodies is harmful. Children aged 0 to 6 are particularly vulnerable because their brains are in critical stages of development. Plus, their bodies are small, which means they absorb lead more easily than grownups.

And we all know kids put their hands—and all kinds of toys and objects—into their mouths all day long, making their risk for exposure is much higher. That’s scary because lead can slow a child’s growth and development, spur hearing and speech problems, and cause learning, concentration, memory, and behavior issues, too. The worst part? The effects of lead are irreversible and can continue well into adulthood.

Nina Montée Karp: California lawmakers just introduced bills to protect children from lead exposure. Can you explain what they say?

Dr. Harvey Karp: Both bills are designed to protect children from the damaging effects of lead in drinking water. The first bill (Assembly Bill 1851) would set up a state-funded pilot program to test for lead in drinking water in up to 10 California school districts, specifically those with plumbing installed before 2010. Once we locate the schools that have lead in the water, we can work to fix the problem.

The second bill (Assembly Bill 2671) is about keeping the drinking water safe in daycares. Last year, widespread testing found that the drinking water in nearly 1,700 licensed childcare centers in California contained lead, with 260+ containing levels 50 to 200 times greater than the legal limit! This bill would require in-home daycares to install lead-removing water filters.

We really need both of these bills to pass—and pass quickly! Parents expect daycares and schools to be safe. They certainly don’t expect their child to get a daily dose of lead-tainted water while learning and playing! Clearly we should do everything we can—right now—to get the lead out. 

Nina Montée Karp: Should parents demand that schools and licensed childcare centers use special water filters?

Dr. Harvey Karp: Yes! As shocking as it is, there is no federal law requiring daycares or schools to test for lead if their water comes from a public water system. It’s important for all water fountains, water stations, and taps used for drinking and cooking to be fitted with filters certified to remove lead.

Nina Montée Karp: How do we find out if we have a lead problem?

Dr. Harvey Karp: If your home was built before 1978, contact your local health department about getting your home tested for lead. In America, 24% of homes built between 1960 and 1977 contain lead paint—and that goes up to 87% in even older homes. You can also buy lead testing kits at many hardware stores so you can check all around your home.

Since we can’t see, taste, or smell lead in drinking water, the best way to know your risk is to investigate. Start with your local water authority (that’s where your water bill comes from). While you should receive a water quality report with your water bill once a year, it only offers a system-wide picture. It’s not focused on your home. So, if you want to know if your home’s drinking water contains lead, ask them to test it.  Many public water systems will test drinking water for residents upon request. (If your drinking water comes from a household well, you’ll need to do the testing yourself.)

If you’re pregnant—or planning on starting a family soon—look into testing your water now. Lead can pass to your unborn baby. Plus, the EPA estimates that up to 60% of infants’ lead exposure can come from the water used to mix infant formula! Using a reverse osmosis water filter under your sink will remove the lead and ease your mind. 

Nina Montée Karp: I’m sure moms and dads are wondering if they should test their children for lead poisoning. What’s your advice?

Dr. Harvey Karp: All children enrolled in Medicaid are required to get tested for lead at 12 months and again at 24 months. It’s a simple finger stick test that just requires a drop or two of blood. While testing is recommended for “high-risk” children, it’s not standard practice. If you think that your child has been exposed to lead, contact your healthcare provider and ask for a blood lead test. (Make sure they clean your child’s finger well before drawing the blood to remove any possible lead dust contamination on the skin.)

Nina Montée Karp: What is the treatment for lead poisoning?

Dr. Harvey Karp: The best “treatment” is preventing lead exposure in the first place! For children who have been exposed, their treatment will depend on how much lead is found in your child’s system. If relatively low lead levels are detected, avoiding lead exposure may be enough to reduce blood lead levels. But if your child has high levels, they may need chelation therapy. Chelation is a medication that binds with lead so that it can be peed out. For more information on caring for lead exposed children, refer to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's advice

Nina Montée Karp: Since prevention is so important, what are some steps parents can take to keep their homes lead-safe?

Dr. Harvey Karp: Since one-fifth of a child’s exposure to lead comes from drinking water, test your water for lead. This is especially important if the water pipes, fixtures, fittings, and/or in your home welding solder were made prior to 1986. If you have concerns, consider getting a reverse osmosis water filter under your sink to remove the lead and ease your mind.

If your home was built before 1978 (when lead-based paint was banned in the U.S.), get your paint tested for lead. You can also buy lead testing kits at many hardware stores so you can check all around your home. At the very least, if your older home has any peeling or chipping paint, reach out to a certified lead inspector or abatement professional to assess the situation.

If you're planning on doing any construction in your home, keep your kids away from the site until the job is done. To keep the construction dirt outside have everyone take off their shoes when entering the home.

Quick Tips to Prevent Lead Exposure

  • Keep kids away from high-risk areas. Old porches, windows sills and window wells, antique painted furniture, or anywhere with chipping or peeling paint should be no-play zones. The dirt next to an old home can hide lead, too, from paint that was removed a long time before or from years of lead that slowly deposited from lead-laden automobile exhaust.. To reduce potential exposure, cover bare soil with mulch, wood chips, or grass.
  • Renovate the right way. Before making repairs, make sure the area is sealed off, so dust doesn’t billow out. And don’t try to remove lead paint on your own—that can make matters worse! Always hire a certified pro.
  • Keep your home clean. Make sure everyone removes shoes at the door to reduce the dirt that gets tracked in. Regularly wipe down surfaces. Wash pacifiers and toys, too!
  • Get kids in the habit of washing hands before eating. Follow these tips for teaching kids how to wash their hands!
  • Use only cold tap water…to make formula, for drinking, and when you cook. (Hot water pulls more lead out of the pipes.) Ideally you should also be using a water filter that’s “NSF certified” to remove lead. (Here’s a guide to choosing a filter.)
  • Test your water. You can start with the EWG’s Tap Water Database.
  • Fill up on a variety of healthy foods. A nutritious diet (especially food high in calcium and iron) can help kids absorb less lead. (And here’s what you need to know about lead in baby food.)

For more information about lead exposure, please see the resources at the American Academy of Pediatrics and Environmental Working Group.

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Disclaimer: The information on our site is NOT medical advice for any specific person or condition. It is only meant as general information. If you have any medical questions and concerns about your child or yourself, please contact your health provider.