An increase in cases of lead poisoning in children who live in Flint, Michigan, has caused the mayor of Flint to declare a state of emergency.

A switch in the city's water source in April 2014, from the Detroit water system to the Flint River, is likely to blame for the outbreak. When the source change took place, residents immediately began to complain about the water's color and foul odor. Since then, a new study by the Hurley Medical Center in Flint found the number of infants and children 5 years old and younger with above-average levels of lead in their blood has nearly doubled.

Although the city of Flint issued an advisory to boil water before using it, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says this tactic won't remove all the lead from contaminated water. Instead, the CDC recommends avoiding tap water altogether and using only bottled water. People who live in Flint filed a federal class action suit against the state in November 2015.

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According to the CDC, at least 4 million households nationwide have children who are being exposed to high levels of lead.

Even if you're not a Flint resident, it's smart to know how to protect kids from lead exposure and what to do if you think your child may have lead poisoning.

Keeping kids safe from lead

The CDC and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) offer these tips:

  • Keep kids away from peeling paint. Have your local health department test any suspicious paint or dust in your home.
  • Don't allow little ones to play on bare soil. They'll be tempted to put dirt in their mouths and it may contain lead. (A sandbox is safe, though.)
  • Wash children's hands, bottles, pacifiers and toys often.
  • Do not use cookware or dishes that aren't labeled lead free.
  • Drink only cold tap water. Hot water is more likely to pick up lead as it streams through your home's pipes.

Learn more ways to avoid lead poisoning in kids.

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Symptoms of lead poisoning

Lead poisoning can be difficult to detect because symptoms don't show up until a large amount of lead has entered the body. Also, according to KidsHealth.org, the symptoms of lead poisoning may resemble those of other ailments. They can include developmental delay, irritability, loss of appetite, weight loss, sluggishness, abdominal pain, vomiting, constipation and hearing loss, according to the Mayo Clinic.

Whether a child is exposed to lead for a short period of time or over a long period, lead poisoning is dangerous. If lead gets into the bloodstream, it can cause serious side effects, such as damage to red blood cells or anemia, according to KidsHealth.org. If lead ends up in bones, it can prevent a child's body from absorbing the calcium needed for her skeleton to develop properly.

When to get your child tested

If your child has been exposed to lead paint or has consumed water from old lead or copper pipes, it's a good idea to have her tested for lead poisoning. All it takes is a simple blood test. Houses built before 1978 are likely to contain some lead-based paint, according to the Mayo Clinic.

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Muriel Vega is a writer with a passion for budget travel and staying safe while abroad. A Georgia State University graduate, she has over 6 years of editorial experience and has written for The Guardian, The Atlantic, The Billfold, among other outlets. In her free time, you can find her baking pies, playing with her two dogs and cat, or planning her next vacation. She spends way too much time on Twitter, one of her favorite social media channels. Her favorite safety tip: Make sure you have all the necessary shots before you go abroad.