Conversation Guide: Lead Poisoning

Woman hugging two young children

The Center of Excellence for Newcomer Health has named lead poisoning as a priority health condition for Afghan newcomers, particularly infants, children, and women of reproductive age.

Lead poisoning affects all communities. However, according to the Afghan Health Initiative, Afghan newcomers are disproportionately affected by lead poisoning due to exposure to contaminated products like surma, pressure cookers, certain fuels, children’s toys, or ammunition. Lead is also found in water, soil, and paint in American homes built before 1978. 

Lead poisoning is a serious health issue that can cause severe mental and physical harm. It is the leading cause of developmental delays in children, and it can also be fatal over time. Thankfully, there are ways to prevent lead poisoning.

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What is lead?

Lead is a naturally occurring toxic metal found in the ground, and it is also used in many products that people encounter in daily life.

What is lead poisoning?

Lead poisoning or toxicity means there is lead in your body that could cause health problems. There is no safe amount of lead in the body. Even low levels of lead can cause harmful changes in intelligence, behavior, and health.

How do people get exposed to lead?

Lead is found in many products that people encounter in daily life. Common sources of lead include:

  • Lead paint, especially in houses built before 1978
  • Dirt near airports, factories, highways and orchards
  • Water from lead pipes
  • Cosmetics like surma, kajal and kohl
  • Household goods like antiques, imported pottery, keys and batteries
  • Old, painted or metal toys and jewelry
  • Job sites for people who work in factories, construction, or around metals
  • Contact with ammunition or prior military service

What kind of health problems does lead cause?

Lead can cause serious health problems. It can slow down growth and development, make it hard to learn, damage hearing and speech, and cause behavior problems. The harm done by lead may never go away, but lead poisoning can be prevented.

Who is at risk for health problems from lead poisoning?

Lead can harm anyone, but young children and pregnant women are at higher risk. Children are especially at risk from lead because of their small size and developing brains. Lead is more harmful to children less than six years of age because their bodies are still developing and growing quickly. Young children also tend to put their hands or other objects into their mouths, so they are more likely to be exposed to lead than older children.

If a pregnant person has a high lead level, their developing baby can also be exposed. Too much lead in your body while pregnant can: 

  • Put you at risk for miscarriage
  • Cause your baby to be born too early or too small
  • Hurt your baby’s brain, kidneys, and nervous system
  • Cause your child to have learning or behavior problems

I heard Surma has lead in it, but it is important to me to practice Afghan traditions. How can I keep my family safe?

You can practice your traditions while protecting your families from lead. Support your child's healthy development by using cosmetics from American or European brands instead of Surma.

How can I cook traditional Afghan dishes without exposing my family to lead?

Cook delicious Afghan dishes like lubya or korma in pressure cookers made with stainless steel. Wash fruits and vegetables before cooking or eating them, and remove the outer leaves of leafy green vegetables. Season your food with spices sold in the U.S., which do not contain lead.

What other Afghan traditions can keep me safe from lead?

Follow the Afghan tradition of removing your shoes before entering a home and keeping rugs at entryways clean.

How else can I protect my family from lead?

Other things you can do to stay safe include: 

  • Regularly cleaning floors, windowsills, and other surfaces with soap and water.
  • Protecting children by washing bottles, teething rings, and toys with soap and water. Only buy toys that say they are lead free. 
  • Wash your hands and your child’s hands before eating and sleeping.
  • If you rent, ask your landlord about lead before you sign a lease. Before you buy a home, have it inspected for lead. If you need help, contact your local health department.
  • If you are pregnant or breastfeeding, talk to your doctor about lead

What are the symptoms of lead poisoning?

Most people, including children, do not feel sick when they have lead poisoning. Even if you do not feel sick, lead can still cause serious health problems.

How can I know whether my family or I have lead in our bodies?

A blood test is the best way to determine if you or your child has been exposed to lead. Your doctor may take a small sample of blood by pricking your finger or taking it from your arm. You will get the results from this test within a few days.

In the United States, doctors screen all children for lead poisoning when they are 1 and 2 years old, but anyone can get tested for lead poisoning at any age. Ask your doctor to test you and your family for lead poisoning. 

People who have lead in their blood may have to be tested from time to time to monitor the risk to their health.

Blood tests for lead are usually free for people with health insurance, including Medicaid.

What should I do if I have lead poisoning?

If you or your children have relatively low levels of lead, removing the source of the lead (such as dust or cookware) may be enough to reduce the amount of lead in your blood.

Eating foods with high iron, calcium and vitamin C can help protect you and your child against the harmful effects of lead, but it is not a cure for lead poisoning. Commonly found ingredients that are also used in many traditional Afghan dishes can offer protection, including chicken, meat, fish, eggs, beans, lentils, leafy greens, fruit, milk, cheese, and yogurt.

Avoid home remedies, as some may contain lead and could make your health problems worse. Always follow your doctor's recommendations on how to treat lead poisoning.

Is there medicine for lead poisoning?

For more severe cases of lead poisoning, there are medicines that can help your body get rid of the lead. The medicine is called chelation therapy, and may be given in pills or in an injection. Treatments for lead poisoning can relieve some problems but not others. That is why preventing exposure to lead, especially among children and pregnant people, is important.

Avoid home remedies, as some may contain lead and could make your health problems worse. Always follow your doctor's recommendations on how to treat lead poisoning.