Most of us know that lead paint is hazardous to children. It can cause severe anemia and permanent brain damage.
What many of us don't realize, however, is that children's bodies can harbor dangerous levels of lead without their ever gnawing on a single paint chip.
So get rid of that picture in your mind of a child pulling paint chips off the window from his crib. The problem is usually good old-fashioned dust.
Lead paint dust results from the normal friction of opening and closing drawers, doors, windows and door frames coated with lead paint. Tiny fragments can fly into the air and later settle on the floor - well within the reach of tiny hands and mouths.
Lead dust and chips can also be found outside the home, with the heaviest concentrations within three feet of a home's exterior. This is usually the result of the peeling and chipping of exterior lead-based paint or lead dust released by recent renovations or repainting.
Although lead can also harm older children and adults, the threat is worst for children under 6, and for fetuses exposed to lead through their mother's bloodstream.
Despite lead paint's potential for harm, like asbestos, we can live with it. Many experts believe that controlling the hazard is a far better solution than removing it altogether.
Good options include covering the area with wallpaper, paneling, or new lead-free paint.
Once lead-painted surfaces are covered, they are generally safe unless they are re-exposed, scraped, or start to chip or peel.
If you have small children, you'll need to do a bit more to keep them safe. Wash a child's hands, face and toys frequently, mop hard surface floors, windowsills and baseboards at least once a week (don't use the mop for anything else).
Load your children's diet with iron-rich foods, including lean meats, beans, spinach, tuna, eggs and greens. Iron helps block some absorption of lead.
Outside, plant grass or other ground cover as a barrier between your children and lead in the soil, from chipping, peeling exterior paint or car exhaust fumes that settle on the ground.
And if you live in or plan to buy a pre-1978 home, consider hiring a trained professional to do an assessment.
Be aware that leaded crystal can leach lead into stored liquids, particularly acidic beverages such as wine or juice.
Vigilance in mitigating or eliminating lead paint dust will go a long way toward keeping your kids safe at home.