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Lead Poisoning

What is lead poisoning?

Lead is a naturally occurring metal. It has been used for hundreds of years. It is found in some water pipes, old paint (in the U.S., that is paint from before 1978), some pottery glazes, some types of batteries, and bullets. "Lead" pencils don't contain lead and aren't dangerous.

Lead poisoning occurs when a child or adult gets lead in their body. Lead gets into the body by eating it or breathing it.

According to the EPA, lead poisoning was once a major environmental health hazard. But the EPA notes that it has declined greatly since the 1970s. It continues to decrease. But nearly 500,000 children under age 5 in the U.S. have high levels of lead in their blood. This data is according to the Advisory Committee on Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention (ACCLPP). There is no safe blood lead level (BLL) in children. Even low blood lead levels have been shown to lower a child's IQ, ability to pay attention, and academic performance. Lead-related physical and thinking (cognitive) changes can’t be corrected.

What causes lead poisoning?

Eating or breathing in dust from lead-based paint that is crumbling is the most common cause of lead poisoning in children. Other sources of lead poisoning include:

  • Dust and soil tainted with lead from old paint

  • Dust and soil tainted with lead from leaded gasoline

  • Tap water in homes that have lead pipes

  • Paint and dust chips from old toys, furniture, and pottery glazes

In early 2005, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission started a new policy for lead in children’s metal jewelry. Some children who swallowed or sucked on jewelry with lead had high blood lead levels. Since 2004, the Commission has recalled over 150 million pieces of toy jewelry. This jewelry was sold in vending machines and other outlets.

Who is at risk for lead poisoning?

These people are most at risk for lead poisoning:

  • Children between ages 1 and 3

  • Children in low-income families

  • African Americans

  • Mexican Americans

  • People living in large metropolitan areas

  • People living in older housing built before 1978

  • People working in places that have lead exposure, such as lead smelters, lead refineries and lead mines, battery manufacturers, and rubber-product manufacturers

  • People drinking water that comes through lead pipes

  • People using plates, cups, pitchers, or plates made with a lead-based glaze

What are the symptoms of lead poisoning? 

The symptoms of lead poisoning are related to how much lead is in the body and how quickly it builds up. Symptoms often happen slowly, over weeks or longer. People with mild lead poisoning often have no symptoms. If not found early, children with high levels of lead in their bodies can have:

  • Damage to the brain and nervous system

  • Behavior and learning problems

  • Slowed growth

  • Hearing problems

  • Headaches

  • Anemia

  • Seizures

  • Trouble learning

  • Aggressive behavior

  • Low intelligence

  • Long-lasting belly pain

In adults, lead poisoning may cause:

  • Trouble during pregnancy

  • Reproductive problems in both men and women

  • High blood pressure

  • Digestive disorders

  • Memory and concentration problems

  • Headaches

  • Personality changes

  • Nerve damage

  • Metallic taste in the mouth

  • Muscle weakness and joint pain

In both children and adults, high levels of lead may also cause seizures, coma, and death. The symptoms of lead poisoning may look like other health conditions or problems. Always talk with your healthcare provider for a diagnosis.

How is lead poisoning diagnosed? 

A simple blood test can show high levels of lead in the body. This blood test should be done on children under age 2, people living in an older home, children and adults with symptoms of lead poisoning, and people who are exposed to lead at work.

In the U.S., it is advised that pregnant women with risk factors for lead poisoning have a blood lead level (BLL) screening. The baby’s BLL should also be tested after birth. BLLs of both the mother and baby should be put into the health records. The records should include any treatments used and suggested follow-up care.

How is lead poisoning treated?

  • Before treatment, the high blood lead level (BLL) will be confirmed by repeat blood testing.

  • Because there is no safe blood lead level, medical action is advised in all children with BLLs greater than the U.S. reference value. The urgency, type, timing, and setting for the medical treatment will vary and depends on the severity of the lead poisoning.

  • People with lead poisoning may be given medicine. This medicine binds with the lead. This lets it pass out of the body in the urine.

  • With mild poisoning, the medicine is given by mouth. With more severe poisoning, the medicine is given by an IV (intravenous) line into a vein.

  • Medicines that get rid of the lead can also get rid of important minerals. Diet supplements may be given to replace these minerals.

  • Other children and family members at risk for lead poisoning will be screened and, if needed, treated.

  • After treating the person with lead poisoning, lead from the person’s environment is found and removed. A public health authority will help with this.

  • The type of follow-up care needed will be determined by the original BLL.

What are possible complications of lead poisoning?

There is no safe blood lead level. Even with treatment, people may suffer from long-lasting physical and behavioral problems.

What can I do to prevent lead poisoning?

If you work in a factory or a work environment with lead exposure, ask your healthcare provider about the blood lead level test.

If you live in older housing, it is important to know the year the house was built. The same is true for housing where your child spends a lot of time. This includes buildings such as grandparents’ homes and daycare centers. If the housing was built before 1978, assume the paint has lead in it unless testing proves otherwise. 

In these buildings, the CDC advises that you:

  • Contact your state or local health department about checking the paint and dust for lead.

  • Make certain your child does not have access to peeling paint surfaces. If possible, close and lock doors or create barriers between living and play areas and sources of lead. You can cover areas temporarily with contact paper or duct tape.

  • Pregnant women and children shouldn't stay in housing built before 1978 that is being renovated. In addition, they should not clean up debris or do any work that disturbs old paint.

  • If possible, keep windows closed so the paint won't be disturbed when the windows are opened and closed.

  • Wash children’s hands and toys on a regular schedule. Both hands and toys become contaminated from outside dirt and household dust. Both of these are known lead sources.

  • Wet-mop floors and wet-wipe window wells and frames at least every 2 to 3 weeks.

  • Take off shoes when entering the house so the lead-contaminated soil will not be brought into the house.

  • Prevent children from playing in the bare soil around the building. Plant grass, move the play area, or cover the area with mulch or wood chips. Until the bare soil is covered, move the play area so the children don’t play near the house.

Key points about lead poisoning

  • Lead poisoning occurs when a child or adult gets lead in their body. Lead gets into the body by eating it or breathing it.

  • Nearly 500,000 children under age 5 in the U.S. have high levels of lead in their blood.

  • Eating or breathing in dust from deteriorating lead-based paint is the most common cause of lead poisoning among children.

  • Another source of lead poisoning is tap water in homes that have lead pipes. It's also linked to paint and dust chips from old toys, furniture, and certain hobby materials.

  • There is no safe blood lead level in children. Even low blood lead levels have been shown to lower a child's IQ, ability to pay attention, and academic performance.

  • State and local health departments can help check for lead in paint and dust.

Next steps

Tips to help you get the most from a visit to your healthcare provider:

  • Know the reason for your visit and what you want to happen.

  • Before your visit, write down questions you want answered.

  • Bring someone with you to help you ask questions and remember what your provider tells you.

  • At the visit, write down the name of a new diagnosis and any new medicines, treatments, or tests. Also write down any new instructions your provider gives you.

  • Know why a new medicine or treatment is prescribed and how it will help you. Also know what the side effects are.

  • Ask if your condition can be treated in other ways.

  • Know why a test or procedure is recommended and what the results could mean.

  • Know what to expect if you do not take the medicine or have the test or procedure.

  • If you have a follow-up appointment, write down the date, time, and purpose for that visit.

  • Know how you can contact your provider if you have questions.

Online Medical Reviewer: Eric Perez MD
Online Medical Reviewer: L Renee Watson MSN RN
Online Medical Reviewer: Marianne Fraser MSN RN
Date Last Reviewed: 5/1/2023
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