Lead Poisoning

Lead is a soft, heavy, toxic metal.  It is found in many products we use every day—sometimes even in toys.  It can be found in house paint and in some dirt and dust.

What is lead poisoning? 

Lead poisoning means having lead in the body in an amount that can cause serious health and development problems.  

Lead poisoning most often builds up slowly over time, due to repeated contact with small amounts of lead.  But swallowing a lead object, such as toy jewelry that contains lead can cause acute lead poisoning, and even death.

Lead poisoning is very common. 1 in 40 children ages 1-5 years old have blood lead levels that are considered unsafe (over 5 µg/dL).

Why is lead poisoning harmful for children?

Lead is a neurotoxin.  It is much more dangerous for children than adults because it affects kids’ developing brains and nervous systems. The younger the child, the more harm lead can cause. Even small amounts of lead exposure add up over time, increasing risk of developmental effects.

What causes lead poisoning?  What are some possible sources of exposure?

Children can be exposed to lead in many ways.  Kids can take in lead by mouth or through breathing lead dust.  They can get dust and paint chips on their hands and then put their hands in their mouths. 

There are many common sources of lead exposure.  Some potential sources of exposure include:

  • Lead paint in houses built before 1978.  The older the home, the greater the probability it contains lead, especially in the paint around doors and windows.
  • Water from old plumbing fixtures and pipes with lead soldering
  • Lead in dust and soil
  • Old painted toys and furniture
  • New, imported painted toys
  • Equipment used in hobbies that use lead products (making stained glass windows, ammunition or lead sinkers for fishing)
  • Exposure at work (parents may bring lead home on their clothes)
  • Toy jewelry and trinkets such as from dollar stores or vending machines
  • Some snacks or candies from other countries
  • Medicines and home remediesfrom other countries. 
  • Imported food cans with lead soldering
  • Lead-glazed pottery and ceramic dishes
  • Foods made or stored in lead-glazed pottery or lead crystal

What are the symptoms of lead poisoning?

There are often no clear symptoms of lead poisoning. Many children appear healthy and normal. Some may have symptoms like:

  • acting irritable or grouchy
  • behavior problem (like acting hyper or aggressive)
  • learning problems
  • tiredness or weakness
  • low appetite and energy
  • headaches
  • weight loss
  • sleep problems
  • constipation

The only way to know for sure if your child has lead poisoning is through blood testing.

How is lead exposure measured?

Kids are screened for lead exposure by having their blood tested.  Blood levels are measured in micrograms per deciliter (µg/dL). 

There is no safe lead level.  The lead level of 5 µg/dL or higher is concerning, but recent studies show that even low levels of lead are harmful and are associated with lower IQ, impaired growth and development, and impaired hearing. Experts cannot yet say that there is a blood lead level at which there is no risk.

Talk to your pediatrician about lead and whether your child might be at risk, especially if your child is between six months to three years of age.

What is the treatment for lead poisoning?

Removing a child’s exposure to lead will help stop the progression of effects. There is no medicine that reverses the harm that has already occurred. A chemical process called chelation therapy helps remove heavy metals like lead from the blood, but has serious side effects that could potentially be life- threatening. Doctors only use chelation for very high blood lead levels.

How do I know if I should have my child tested?

Children are most at risk from ages six months to three years, so this is the age range during which it is especially important to talk to your pediatrician about testing. Kids remain at risk up to age six, according to the CDC, since they are growing fast, and tend to put their hands in their mouths. Talk to your pediatrician to determine whether your child needs to be tested.

If another household member has an elevated blood lead level, then your child should be screened.

If you live in a house built before 1978, you may have lead in your paint or soil. Talk to your pediatrician or health department about lead screening (testing), even if your child seems healthy.  Special risk groups that should be tested include foster children, immigrant and refugee children, foreign-born adopted children, and kids whose parents work with lead or lead dust at their job or in their hobby, and those who live in, visit, or work on old houses.

How can I tell if my house has lead in or around it?

Paint made before 1978 often had lead in it.  Most houses built before 1978 have some lead-based paint in or on them somewhere.  The older the house, the greater the risk. Houses built before 1950 have a higher risk.  The risk becomes greater if the paint is deteriorating or if the house is being remodeled.  Completely intact lead paint is usually not a health hazard—unless it’s somewhere your child may chew on it (such as a window sill or painted toy). 

To get an indication of whether paint or dust in your house contains lead, you can purchase a kit to test for lead from a hardware store, or order a lead dust test kit.  Note:  The EPA states, “Despite the EPA’s commitment of resources to this effort, to date no lead test kit has met both of the performance criteria outlined in the Lead Renovation, Repair and Painting rule. However, there are three EPA-recognized lead test kits that meet the negative response criterion and continue to be recognized by EPA.” You can also hire a lead professional to assess the lead content of your paint, dust and soil and estimate the risks involved. 

What if my house has lead paint?

The risk is greatest if your lead paint is deteriorating, or if you are remodeling your home.  Also, when the weather is warm, the risk goes up, since windows and doors are opened more.  Find out more about lead abatement by exploring the many links and resources on this page or by calling your health department.  It’s probably best to find a qualified lead abatement professional to perform this kind of work. Find out more about what to expect from professional lead services. Removing lead paint yourself can never be completely safe, according to the Consumer Products Safety Commission.   If you remodel, your contractor will need to take extra precautions to keep your family safe from the lead dust that will result from demolition. 

What can I do to protect my child?

  • Eating healthy foods, high in iron, calcium and vitamin C, and low in fat, will help your child to absorb less lead.  Also, keeping food in the stomach by eating healthy, low-fat snacks slows absorption, since lead is more readily absorbed on an empty stomach. 
  • Keep your child away from peeling or chipping lead paint.
  • Keep the house very clean to protect your child from lead dust—especially floors and windowsills. 
  • Kids should always wash up before eating, after play, and at bedtime.  Good hand washing with soap and running water will wash the lead off quite effectively.  This is particularly important for young kids who put their hands in their mouths a lot. 
  • Keep the dust down.  If you have areas around your house with bare dirt, cover them with wood chips, grass or plantings. 
  • Wash toys and stuffed animals often—especially teething toys. 
  • If you rent your house, talk to your landlord about chipping and peeling paint.
  • If your child is diagnosed with lead poisoning, your health department will follow up with you and help you through figuring out what else to do.

Can lead affect my baby when I’m pregnant or breastfeeding?

In pregnancy, exposure to lead can affect the fetus.  Lead in the blood can cross the placenta.  Even lead stored in bones can be mobilized and expose the woman and fetus.  Lead poisoning of the fetus can cause low birth weight, stillbirth or miscarriage.

To protect your baby, get enough calcium, and eat a well-balanced diet.  Eat small amounts often, to keep food in the stomach.  Follow the other advice on this page for cleaning lead dust in older houses and avoiding products and situations that might expose you to lead.  Breastfeeding mothers need to get lots of calcium.

How do I know if my home water supply contains lead?

You cannot see, taste, or smell lead in water. Start with your local water supplier. According to the Centers for Disease Control, you should call your water supplier and ask: Does the service pipe at my street (header pipe) have lead in it?

If you are concerned, some local water suppliers will come to your home and test for free. If that's not an option, you can buy a lead testing kit from home improvement stores to collect the testing samples.

If you do testing yourself, be sure to follow directions carefully and only use "first-draw water," the very first water coming out of your pipes after sitting overnight. If there are harmful materials in the pipes, that water will have the most accumulation of toxins.

Additional resources:

 

Reviewed by Sharon Swindell, MD, MPH and Margeaux Naughton, MD

Updated March 2017