Here’s what NYC parents can do if they’re concerned about lead exposure in classrooms

Nearly a week after the education department revealed it had to fix peeling lead paint in nearly 1,000 New York City classrooms, some parents are still trying to figure out what the news means for their children.

The Department of Education did send letters to principals this week detailing some of the dangers of lead exposure and how lead paint is identified. But some staff and parents feel the letter raises more questions than answers.

Two pediatricians who have worked with children exposed to lead spoke with Chalkbeat about the dangers of lead and offered tips on what parents can do if they fear their children are at risk.

What’s so dangerous about lead?

Exposure to lead can impact development, especially in a child’s growing brain, said Dr. Helen Binns, professor of pediatrics at Northwestern University and director of the lead evaluation program at Ann and Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago. 

Lead settles in the bones, where it can remain. But the most critical “target organ” is the brain, said Dr. Morri Markowitz, director of the Lead Poisoning Treatment and Prevention Program at Children’s Hospital at Montefiore in the Bronx. As a result, “we worry about the effects on a child’s ability to learn and play when their brain has been affected.”

Lead exposure can cause learning disabilities and behavioral issues, according to the Centers for Disease Control, which says there is no “safe” level of lead in the blood. 

How are children exposed?

The metal can enter the blood through consuming paint chips and inhaling or licking lead dust. 

Lead dust, which can come from peeling paint or even soil, is the “most common pathway” for lead exposure in children because children spend a lot of time on the floor touching and exploring things, Binns said. Dust can be tracked in on shoes and blown in from the window, and can contaminate carpets, furniture, and floors. 

“At age 3 and 4, a certain percent of those students will be putting things in their mouth,” Markowitz said. “Even with the 6-year-olds, there are kids sitting in classrooms for an unknown period potentially being exposed.”

In the case of New York City classrooms that were found to have peeling lead paint, it’s not known how long children were exposed. The records of any past inspections, which Chalkbeat has requested, have not yet been made public. The education department says its custodians regularly check for deteriorating paint in classrooms with kids younger than 6 in buildings built before 1985. (Older buildings are more likely to contain lead-based paint.)  

To keep lead dust from accumulating, “you can do a really good job just with good cleaning with soap and water,” Binns said. “It will really lower the lead dust levels, so your environmental services teams at the schools are your real partners at keeping any of the dust from coming in.” 

My child’s class is on list of affected New York City schools. What should I do?

Ask your child’s pediatrician for a blood test to check their lead levels, Binns said. 

You can also reach out to public health officials, since they are likely to have a better sense of where and how your child may have been exposed, Markowitz said. 

Since last June, city health officials have required doctors to report any detection of lead in a child’s blood, according to the city’s health department. Last year 3,866 children younger than 6 had at least 5 micrograms of lead or per deciliter of blood. That’s the level at which the city is required to investigate the source of exposure. The number has steadily dropped from about 14,000 children in 2010, city data show.

Parents should also consider if their child is prone to putting non-food items in their mouths, if they suck their thumbs or bite their nails, or swallow things that aren’t food. That can help them assess the risk of lead exposure since “one child can be fine where another has ingested a lot of lead in the same risky environment,” Binns said.

She added that children with developmental delays are more likely than others to put things in their mouths that are not food.

What if classrooms in my school are affected? What should I do?

It never hurts to speak to your pediatrician, the doctors said, and try to find out if your child spent any time in affected classrooms. 

School officials should also determine the condition of common areas, such as gyms, hallways, cafeterias. The education department’s evaluation for lead focuses only on classrooms, according to its protocol.

What if I’m a teacher?

The district should keep teachers informed about inspection results and make information easily accessible for teachers so they know the condition of their classroom every time an inspection happens, Markowitz said. In New York, teachers can also now report deteriorating paint conditions to the department. 

Lead ingestion is “dangerous at older ages as well,” Markowitz said, but the concern is more focused on children because of the potentially life-changing effects. In adults, elevated lead levels can contribute to neurological damage, such as fatigue and hearing loss, and other physical problems, such as gastrointestinal issues and reproductive problems, according to the New York State health department.

Pregnant women should be particularly cautious because even a low level of rising lead can be a risk factor for preeclampsia, which is characterized by high blood pressure and can cause serious complications to pregnancy, according to Binns.

Regular hand-washing, actively wiping dusty surfaces, and refraining from nail-biting can make a big difference.

What happens if my child tests positive? 

First, the source (or sources) of exposure should be identified — and they may not be limited to school. Binns explained: “You have to go through the full evaluation to see if you’re getting it at home [or] at grandma’s house,” or from using cookware or spices that have been noted to have traces of lead. (Here’s a list of lead-based consumer products to stay away from.)

Next, parents can help children change their potentially dangerous habits, such as putting non-food items into their mouths, Markowitz said. 

Nutrition can play a role in remediation, too. Parents should ensure children are eating foods rich in calcium and iron, since bodies will absorb less lead if they’re getting other essential metals that humans need. Binns advises having fruit with every meal because Vitamin C can increase the absorption of iron. 

“What I tell the families is, healthy eating is good for everybody all the time, but it’s really the iron part I’m focusing on with them,” she said. She added that constantly engaging with your child — playing games and reading books — helps promote brain development, even if your child has been exposed to lead. 

Is it safe to send my child to school?

The education department said yes, that all of the affected classrooms would be fixed and safe to attend by the first day of school. Markowitz said eliminating lead hazards in all affected classrooms would mean hiring enough EPA-certified contractors to do the remediation — that is, sealing chipped paint and repainting.