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No levels acceptable: Canadian Pediatric Society warns about effect low-exposure lead has on children

Dr. Irena Buka, a University of Alberta pediatrician and director of Edmonton's Children's Environmental Health Clinic, says no level of exposure is safe. This follows a new advisory from the Canadian Paediatric Society saying exposure of any level of lead can cause neurodevelopmental damage in children.
Dr. Irena Buka, a University of Alberta pediatrician and director of Edmonton's Children's Environmental Health Clinic, says no level of exposure is safe. This follows a new advisory from the Canadian Paediatric Society saying exposure of any level of lead can cause neurodevelopmental damage in children.

With about 1.6 per cent of Edmonton homes still hooked up to lead water service pipes, the Canadian Paediatric Society is raising the alarm that no exposure to the metal is acceptable.

The society issued a new advisory on Wednesday for pediatricians to be more aware of low levels of lead exposure. Irena Buka, co-author of the advisory and a pediatrician at the University of Alberta, said the impacts of low levels can be especially damaging to developing children.

“Lead is what we call a no-threshold chemical, which means there is no safe level,” she said.

“Children are at higher risk because if the lead is in the food, for instance, a child will actually absorb more through their gut. A lot of children are picky eaters. So if a child doesn’t have enough other things in the diet like iron and calcium, again, they absorb more.”

EPCOR says about 1.6 per cent of homes in Edmonton have a water service line that is lead. Most of these homes were built before 1960. The utility company offers a replacement program, which prioritizes homes with young children and pregnant women.

According to Health Canada, Canadians are exposed to low levels of lead in a variety of ways including food, drinking water, the environment and products. Between the ’80s and ’90s, Canada removed lead in numerous products including household paint and gasoline after it was discovered high levels in the environment caused significant damage to children’s major organ systems.

This resulted in fewer cases of acute lead poisoning in Canada but Buka warned both parents and doctors should be aware of the warning signs for low levels of lead exposure.

Those signs, which are usually subtle, include cognitive delay or other neurodevelopment signs such as inattention, hyperactivity, hearing impairment or speech delay. Health professionals can do a blood test to see where someone’s blood lead levels are.

Buka said the biggest vulnerability for children is their brain development.

“We’ve gotten more adept at paying attention to assessing the child’s development at each (visit),” she said. “We’d like to highlight the fact that not all of them are getting a lead test, people aren’t thinking about lead but lead should be a part of that workup of the child with early developmental delays.”

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