Are your kids being exposed to lead paint at their own school? Just last month, lead paint was found flaking off of the handrails at a Portland Public School. Fortunately, it was quickly painted over with non-lead paint before any harm was done. That's the most common way to deal with lead paint flaking off.
What's the harm of lead?
According to the Agency of Toxic Substances & Disease Registry, "lead can damage the nervous system, kidneys, and reproductive system." It also supposedly has a sweet taste, which encourages children to put things in their mouths that uses lead paint, or anything that is exposed to lead dust/particles, which tend to stick to soil. "A child who swallows large amounts of lead may develop blood anemia, severe stomachache, muscle weakness, and brain damage." It may also cause cancer, but there is no definitive proof.
Why use it?
For the chemistry side, the white lead compound is water insoluble to make the paint more durable and water resistant. "Lead carbonate can also neutralise the acidic decomposition products of some of the oils that make up the paint, so the coating stays tough, yet flexible and crack-resistant, for longer."
Lead paint was used in the U.S. until the 1970's. Although it has been banned, they still remain on some materials in older buildings. It is generally not a big deal if they are sealed up under non-lead paint, but chipping/flaking/corrosion may occur.
How do I keep myself and my kids safe?
Obviously, avoid exposure to sources of lead. Know if you live in a place that may expose you and your family to lead. Teach your kids not to put anything weird in their mouth, especially at school where you can't watch them. Find out if your kids' school used to use lead paints and voice your concern to the teachers of any paint flaking off the building. Also make sure to wash your (and your children's) hands/face often if you are around an area that contains lead (or not...stay clean!). You can check for traces of lead in your body through a blood test if you're worried, but just take preventative measures to avoid that!
Here are a couple alternatives to lead paint.