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Lead Poisoning in Children

Facts about lead exposure

Here are facts that can help you keep your children safe: 

  • Lead poisoning is a totally preventable disease.

  • Lead exposure can harm young children and babies—even before they are born.

  • Even children who seem healthy can have high levels of lead in their bodies.

  • Children can get lead in their bodies by breathing or swallowing lead dust, or by eating soil or paint chips with lead in them.

  • Removing lead-based paint incorrectly can increase the danger to your family.

  • CDC estimates show that about half a million children between the ages of 1 and 5 living in the U.S. have an elevated level of lead in their blood.

Lead is more dangerous to children than adults because:

  • They often put their hands and other objects in their mouths that can have lead dust on them.

  • Their growing bodies absorb more lead.

  • Their brains and nervous systems are more sensitive to the damaging effects of lead.

Children between ages 1 and 3 who live in low-income housing built before 1978 are especially at risk as they may have been built with lead-based pipes and leaded paint. In early 2005, the Consumer Product Safety Commission announced a new policy addressing lead in children's metal jewelry. There have been cases where children who swallowed or repeatedly sucked on jewelry items containing lead developed high blood lead levels. Since 2004, the Commission has recalled over 150 million pieces of toy jewelry containing lead that were sold in vending machines and through other outlets.

Effects of lead in the body

Lead poisoning can affect just about every system in the body yet often results in no definitive symptoms. These are some of the most common symptoms of lead poisoning:

  • Damage to the brain and nervous system

  • Behavior and learning problems, or slowed growth

  • Hearing problems

  • Headaches

  • Anemia

Lead is also harmful to adults, and may cause:

  • Problems during pregnancy

  • Reproductive problems in both men and women

  • Anemia

  • Kidney damage

  • High blood pressure

  • Digestive problems

  • Nerve disorders

  • Memory and concentration problems

  • Muscle and joint pain

High levels of lead may also cause seizures, coma, and death. The symptoms of lead poisoning may seem like other conditions or health problems. Always talk with your child's healthcare provider for a diagnosis.

Testing children for lead exposure

If you think your home has high levels of lead, get your children tested. A simple blood test can find high levels of lead, and is important for:

  • Children who are 6 months to 1 year old (6 months if you live in an older home that might have lead in the paint). If your child is older than 1 year, talk with their healthcare provider about if they need testing.

  • Family members whom you think might have high lead levels.

Your child's healthcare provider can test your child's blood levels. The tests are inexpensive and in some cases, free. The provider will explain the test results. Treatment can range from changes in diet to medicines or a hospital stay.

Treating lead poisoning

If a child has lead in their blood above the CDC blood lead reference value (3.5 mcg/dL), their healthcare provider may recommend follow-up services. These include finding and removing lead from the child’s environment, feeding the child a diet high in iron and calcium, connecting the child to early educational services, and scheduling follow-up blood testing. Early identification of lead in the blood is key to reducing the long-term effects of lead exposure.

If a child has very high levels of lead in their blood, healthcare providers may recommend other types of testing and treatment to remove some of the lead from the blood. This may include getting an X-ray to determine if they have high levels of lead in their blood. If a child does have high levels of lead in their blood, they may receive chelation therapy, which is a medical treatment used to remove lead from the body.

Online Medical Reviewer: Dan Brennan MD
Online Medical Reviewer: L Renee Watson MSN RN
Online Medical Reviewer: Liora C Adler MD
Date Last Reviewed: 3/1/2023
© 2000-2024 The StayWell Company, LLC. All rights reserved. This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.
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