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Did you know that your body has metal in it?

The human body doesn't make metal naturally. We take in metal from the food we eat and the water we drink. We also get some metals into our bodies from the air we breathe.You don't have enough metal in your system to attract a magnet or set off a security alarm at an airport. But it's there. You have iron, zinc, copper, cobalt and some other metals inside you in tiny quantities called "trace amounts."

You need trace amounts of certain metals to keep your body's chemistry in balance. For example, iron helps keep your blood in good shape. But some metals can be harmful to the human body. Lead is one of them.

For human beings, lead is toxic. That means it's poisonous.

Lead damages the central nervous system. That's the network of nerves, spinal column and brain that is in charge of learning, thinking and feeling. The central nervous system also controls many physical things you do.

Lead damages the kidneys, the organs that keep your blood clean. Lead can upset your body's blood-manufacturing system, too. It can slow down your growth. And some recent studies have shown that kids who were exposed to lead when they were little have a harder time in school than other kids do. They are slower to learn to read, and they have trouble concentrating.

Lead builds up in the human body. It collects in the tissues and in the bones. Having too much of the metal in the body causes lead poisoning, which is bad news.

Millions of Americans are exposed to dangerous levels of lead. Because their bodies and minds are still developing, children are in the greatest danger from this metal.

Lead comes from many sources. It is found in the air, in water and in the soil. There is lead-based paint in many older houses, and lead pipes in their plumbing systems. (Any plumbing installed before 1930 is likely to contain lead. And any house that was painted inside or out before 1977 probably has lead paint on its walls.) Some cars still use gasoline that contains lead, and the lead gets into the air from their exhaust.

But there is good news, too. Since the 1970s, when laws controlling the use of lead began to be passed, less of this harmful metal has been getting into our bodies. That's because smaller amounts of lead spew into the air from factories and car exhaust. Any car built after 1975 must use unleaded gas.

Food cans manufactured in the United States no longer have lead seals, although lead is still used to seal cans in some foreign countries. The Environmental Protection Agency recently reduced the acceptable level of lead in tap water from 50 parts per billion to 20 parts per billion.

The amount of lead mixed into paint has also been reduced a lot. Before 1977, some paint contained a whole lot of lead. Today, paint used in houses can contain no more than 600 parts per million of lead, by law.

Even so, millions of children are still at risk because of lead paint. They live in older houses where lead paint still coats walls and windowsills. Experts believe there may be as many as 27 million of these houses in our country.

Old furniture and old painted toys also may be coated with lead-based paint. It might surprise you to hear that little kids eat paint. Many small children seem to like the taste of lead-paint chips. But they're eating poison. If you ever see a baby or small child chewing on paint, take the paint away. Then tell an adult, who can decide if the child needs to be tested. There are medical treatments for lead poisoning. But it's best to get rid of the dangers of lead in the first place.

By the way, if you're sitting there gnawing on a pencil as you read this, don't worry. Many people call pencils "lead pencils," but that's a soft mineral called graphite in your pencil.


In an article in FDA Consumer, Roger W. Miller, director of the Food and Drug Administration's communications staff, offers this advice for avoiding some lead contamination: Do not use lead-glazed ceramic products to store or serve food. Acidic foods such as orange juice can release lead from the shiny glazes of ceramic products made in some foreign countries and those fired by amateurs. U.S., British and Japanese ceramics are made under tight quality control and can usually be trusted. But tourist ceramics made in cottage-industry operations like some in Mexico may be a problem. Use such ceramics for decorative rather than culinary purposes and keep them away from the kids.

- you wonder about your body, your feelings, or how things work in the world around you? Send your questions to Catherine O'Neill, HOW & WHY, Universal Press Syndicate, 4900 Main St., Kansas City, Mo. 64112.