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Lead Poisoning

What Is Lead?

Lead is a metal that's found in the environment and many consumer products. It can be toxic (poisonous) to people and animals.

What Is Lead Poisoning?

Lead poisoning happens when too much lead gets into the body. In kids, this can happen when they breathe it in or eat or drink something contaminated by lead. Lead in the body can cause learning, behavior, and other problems. 

How Do Children Get Lead Poisoning?

The most common way that kids get lead poisoning is from lead-based paint in older homes. Lead paint was banned in the United States in the late 1970s, but older homes and businesses can still have lead paint.

Kids can be exposed to the lead if:

  • They chew on or eat lead paint chips.
  • They're around dust from lead paint that's cracking or peeling, and they breathe it in or touch it and put their hands in their mouth.
  • Lead from the house goes into the soil around the house and a child puts the soil into their mouth.

Kids also can have contact with lead if they:

  • Drink water that flows through old lead pipes or lead solder.
  • Eat food stored in bowls glazed or painted with lead.
  • Put soil in their mouth that was contaminated by leaded gas fumes. Gas with lead is now banned but the lead in the soil remains, especially next to busy highways.
  • Put old or imported toys, jewelry, pottery, and cosmetics into their mouth. 
  • Eat imported candies and herbs that contain lead.
  • Are around a caregiver who is exposed at work (for example, through welding, auto repair, or construction) or through a hobby (like stained glass, home remodeling, or lead soldering). If the caregiver has lead on their clothing, a child could breathe it in or get it in their mouth.
  • Take some kinds of traditional medicines that can have lead in them, such as greta and azarcon (used to treat an upset stomach).

Who Is at Risk for Lead Poisoning?

Lead is toxic to everyone, but children younger than 6 years old are at greatest risk for problems from it. Their bodies absorb lead more easily than those of older kids and adults. Children 9 months to 2 years old are more likely to have higher lead levels because they crawl around and put their hands and other things in their mouth.

Kids are also at risk if they:

  • live in homes built before 1978
  • come from a foreign country that doesn’t regulate the use of lead
  • have pica (eat things like dirt and paint chips)

Lead can pass from a mother to her unborn baby. If you are pregnant and think you have been exposed to lead or were exposed in the past, talk to your doctor about getting a blood test to check lead levels.

What Are the Signs & Symptoms of Lead Poisoning?

Many children with lead poisoning have no symptoms. But even a low level of lead in the blood can lead to learning and behavior problems, like trouble paying attention. Symptoms of lead poisoning include:

  • loss of appetite
  • feeling tired or irritable
  • poor growth
  • nausea and vomiting
  • constipation
  • stomach pain
  • joint pain and muscle weakness
  • headaches

Rarely, very high lead levels can cause confusion, seizures, coma, and death.

How Is Lead Poisoning Diagnosed?

A simple blood test can diagnose lead poisoning. Doctors may do a lead test when kids are 1 and 2 years old during regular checkups

Doctors may also recommend a lead test for kids who've had a known exposure to lead (for example, in drinking water) or are higher risk of exposure (such as those who live in an older home or whose parent has a hobby or job that involves being around lead).

How Is Lead Poisoning Treated?

The most important part of treatment is preventing more exposure to lead. The doctor will ask about the home to try to identify possible sources of lead. If a child has lead poisoning, all siblings should be tested.

Calcium, iron, and vitamin C are important parts of a healthy diet and also help decrease how much lead the body absorbs. The doctor may recommend a multivitamin with iron for a child who doesn’t get enough of these important nutrients in their diet.

Kids with high lead levels and symptoms of lead poisoning may need care in a hospital to get a medicine called a chelator (KEE-lay-ter). The chelator helps remove the lead from the body.

The effects of lead on development may not show up for years. Doctors will closely follow the development of children with lead exposure at all regular checkups.

How Can We Prevent Lead Poisoning?

Because there is no safe level for lead, try to protect kids from it. To help prevent lead poisoning:

  • If your home was built before 1978, it’s likely to have lead paint in it. You can get it tested to confirm, but take some precautions whether you test or not:
    • If there is peeling paint, keep children away from it. Put on gloves and a mask and clean it up but do not sand it because that releases the dust with lead in it. If possible, have a lead-safe certified contractor repair it. Some states will help pay to remove lead paint from a home.
    • During any home projects that may disturb paint, be sure to seal off the area so dust can’t get into places where children are. Clean up any dust that gets beyond the sealed area with a damp cloth. If you use a contractor, make sure they are lead-safe certified.
    • Wipe floors and windowsills at least twice a week with a damp cloth.
    • Have kids wash their hands often, especially right before eating.
    • Don’t let kids play in the soil surrounding your house.
  • Get your water tested (including well water). Call your local water department to find a laboratory that will test your water for lead. Running cold water for 10 minutes first thing in the morning can help lower the amount of lead in it.
  • Remove or wipe shoes before coming into the house. If you work or have a hobby that exposes you to lead, consider changing your clothes when coming into the house.
  • Nylon or nylon/polyethylene artificial turf athletic fields may expose kids to lead, especially if the turf is worn. Consider keeping kids younger than 6 years old off this turf. Have older kids shower right after playing on the turf, change their clothes promptly, and keep shoes worn on the turf outside of the home. No one should eat on the field and drinking containers should be kept in a bag or off the ground.
  • Serve a variety of healthy foods, such as dairy products, lean meat and beans, and fruit and vegetables.

Reviewed by: Jonathan M. Miller, MD
Date Reviewed: Feb 20, 2023

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