Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Promoting Good Brain Health by Minimizing Lead Exposure

Learning disabilities and ADHD are two of the most common and widely recognized lead effects. And both are outcomes that can easily be prevented.

Guest post by Dr. Sandra Cottingham, co-author of LEAD BABIES

School-aged children begin to rhyme words, learn the alphabet or notice when the words start with the same sound. These skills are early signs that the brain is functioning as it needs to and that all is well. When young learners struggle with these types of tasks, it is our first clue that the brain is not functioning as it should. Learning and behavior challenges such as a learning disability, ADHD, and even decreased IQ are typically the result of exposure to lead before a child is born or shortly after.

For those who need a dose of hard science to fully grasp the connection between lead and brain development, in utero brain development rolls out something like this…

Around week 12 of pregnancy, critical brain development gets underway. In the next couple of weeks, the visual cortex, the area of the brain responsible for high-level visual processing, will form. Next, the temporal cortex will form as the centre for auditory and visual processing as well as receptive language function. Then, the frontal cortex begins to build and eventually will be the main center for high-level cognition, motor control and expressive language. Because a foundation of damage will not support what is constructed on top of it, avoiding toxic exposure during pregnancy is critical to ensure a child’s capacity for learning later in life is not compromised. The need to avoid heavy metal exposure does not end there. While construction of these three areas of the cerebral cortex begins in early pregnancy, it will continue to evolve throughout childhood, right into adolescence.

It is key to realize that in the case of an unborn baby, the primary source of lead is the baby’s mother. Lead accumulations in bone and tissue are released during pregnancy and breastfeeding, and are delivered straight to baby! Therefore, expectant mothers should be especially aware of their own toxic exposure, not only during pregnancy, but also prior to becoming pregnant. Since lead damages sperm, the importance of avoiding lead exposure prior to conception also applies to men.

So the important questions remain…

How much lead can cause damage?

There is no safe amount of lead. Try dropping three granules of sugar into the palm of your hand the next time you sit down for coffee. The equivalent amount of lead would permanently damage the brain of an unborn child. Physically, it is a surprisingly small amount!

How can you eliminate lead exposure in and around your home?

There are three major categories of lead sources that need to be investigated and addressed.

1. The first is often overlooked, but may well be a significant lead source for a family -- your water. Along water’s pathway to your faucet, there are many opportunities for it to become lead-contaminated. Water can be checked with a simple home test kit, and water filters are an easy solution to a lead problem.

2. The second category is a little more complicated and a bit more work to assess -- but equally as important. Anything you might have bought and carried into the house needs to be considered. And while that list of products and possibilities may at first seem endless, this process will help you hone your consumer skills for future lead-free purchases. If an item is chewed, sucked on, or touched frequently, it should be tested as a priority. Watch your family’s habits closely and test as you go. Having a variety of test kits handy allows you to choose the best one for the job at hand. It is also important to check recall lists every few months. Links can be found and book marked on our site at

3. The third area of risk for lead exposure involves surfaces, both indoor and outdoor -- paint, furniture finishes, dust, and soil. Again, prioritize. The paint in the nursery, and the clear finish on the crib would obviously be a high priority. Exposed sand and soil in the yard are tracked in on shoes and pets, and should be covered with ground cover, mulch, etc.

Parents and parents-to-be have a tremendous responsibility to educate themselves about the myriad of lead sources in the products we buy, in the foods we eat, and in the practices we employ in the maintenance of our homes and yards.

While it does take some time and effort to create and maintain a lead-free home environment, it pales in comparison to what it takes to manage and compensate for learning and behavior problems that will have lifelong impact.

Visit for some free resources to help you and your family identify and remove lead exposure sources in your home.

Dr. Cottingham’s book, LEAD BABIES: How Heavy Metals Are Causing Our Children’s Autism, ADHD, Learning Disabilities, Low IQ and Behavior Problems, is an empowering and comprehensive guide to understanding and responding to your family’s specific lead exposure risks.

Contact Dr. Cottingham with questions or comments at

1 comment:

  1. Great stuff, Susan. We're big fans of yours at LeadCheck. Keep up the great work! We have compiled a list of common household items and fixtures that could possibly contain lead.

    The LeadCheck® Swab is the only EPA-recognized test kit in the country. We have been in the business of protecting families and contractors from the dangers of lead-exposure for over 23 years. The swabs are inexpensive, easy to use, reliable, and above all accurate. Our test kits were given rave reviews in an independent study done by the National Institute of Science and Technology. They have been featured on Oprah, Dr. Oz, This Old House, and in prominent news publications including Newsweek Magazine, USA Today, The New York Times, and The Boston Globe.

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