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Home's age is vital to lead dangers

WASHINGTON -- If you've been putting off repairing a peeling windowsill, or you're thinking of knocking out a wall, listen up: Check how old your house is. You may need to take steps to protect your kids from dangerous lead.

The government is considering tightening the definition of lead poisoning in babies and preschoolers. Lower levels than previously thought may harm developing brains. That's a scary-sounding message.

There's been a big drop in childhood lead poisoning in the United States over the past few decades. Public health programs have targeted the youngsters most at risk -- poor children living in crumbling housing, mostly in cities -- to get them tested and their homes cleaned up.

Specialists say it can be a risk in more affluent areas, too, as do-it-yourselfers embark on fix-ups without knowing anything about an environmental hazard.

The main way U.S. children are exposed to lead is from layers of old paint in buildings built before 1978, when lead was banned from residential paint.

Very high lead levels can cause coma, convulsions, even death, fortunately a rarity today. Lower levels, especially in children younger than 6, can harm the brain, reduce IQ and cause other learning, attention and behavioral problems, without obvious symptoms to alert the parent.

The definition of lead poisoning in young children has been 10 micrograms per deciliter of blood. Now advisers to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are urging lowering the definition to 5 micrograms.

There's no treatment other than to end the exposure: clean up the house. Lead's not good for child or adult, so common-sense precautions are urged.

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