Childhood lead exposure is unfortunately still a serious issue in South Africa. A Medical Research Council study indicated that about 20% of suburban homes, even some relatively new houses, may contain lead-based paint.
Children and unborn babies are particularly vulnerable to the effects of lead exposure, which may include learning and behavioural problems, anaemia and abnormal organ development.
Introducing unleaded petrol has helped lower blood lead concentrations, but they are still unacceptably high.
In addition to exhaust fumes from leaded petrol, there are many other sources of lead. Air, dust and soil near busy roads may contain high levels, for example, as may buildings painted with leaded paint. Lead levels in house dust may be particularly high where leaded paint is flaking or being scraped off.
Children are usually exposed when they put their hands or objects contaminated with lead dust in their mouths. They may also swallow paint flakes or chew painted surfaces.
What to do
- Encourage children to wash their hands frequently, especially before eating.
- Keep kids away from busy roads, peeling paint and where renovations may disturb lead-based paint. You should avoid these environments too if you’re pregnant.
- Playing on grass is generally better than soil or dusty surfaces.
- Control dust levels at home, sweep up paint chips, and keep play areas and toys clean.
- A nutritious diet also helps prevent lead from being absorbed into the body.
- If you think your child may have been exposed, ask your doctor about a blood test to check lead levels.
- (Olivia Rose-Innes, updated August 2007)