About Lead Poisoning
If you have young kids, it's important to find out whether
there's any risk that they might be exposed to lead, especially
if you live in an older home.
Long-term exposure to lead, a naturally occurring metal used in
everything from construction materials to batteries, can
cause serious health problems, particularly in young kids.
Lead is toxic to everyone, but unborn babies and young children are
at greatest risk for health problems from lead poisoning
- their smaller, growing bodies make them more
susceptible to absorbing and retaining lead.
Each year in the United States 310,000 1- to 5-year-old kids are
found to have unsafe levels of lead in their blood, which can lead
to a wide range of symptoms, from headaches and stomach pain to
behavioral problems and anemia. Lead can also affect a
child's developing brain.
The good news is that you can protect your family from lead
poisoning. If you have kids between 6 months and 3 years of
age, talk to your doctor about potential lead sources in your house
or anywhere they spend long periods of time.
And it's important for kids to get tested for lead
exposure at age 1 and again at age 2, as many with lead
poisoning don't show any symptoms.
Why Is Lead Harmful?
When the body is exposed to lead - by being inhaled, swallowed,
or in a small number of cases, absorbed through the skin - it can
act as a poison. Exposure to high levels of lead in a short period
of time is called acute toxicity. Exposure to small amounts of lead
over a long period of time is called chronic toxicity.
Lead is particularly dangerous because once it gets into a
person's system, it is distributed throughout the body just
like helpful minerals such as iron, calcium, and zinc. And lead can
cause harm wherever it lands in the body. In the bloodstream, for
example, it can damage red blood cells and limit their ability to
carry oxygen to the organs and tissues that need it.
Most lead ends up in the bone, where it causes even more
problems. Lead can interfere with the production of blood cells and
the absorption of calcium that bones need to grow healthy and
strong. Calcium is essential for strong bones and teeth, muscle
contraction, and nerve and blood vessel function.
Effects of Long-Term Lead Poisoning
Lead poisoning may lead to a variety of health problems in kids,
- decreased bone and muscle growth
- poor muscle coordination
- damage to the nervous system, kidneys, and/or hearing
- speech and language problems
- developmental delay
- seizures and unconsciousness (in cases of extremely high lead
How Lead Poisoning Occurs
Most commonly, kids get lead poisoning from lead-based paint,
which was used in many U.S. homes until the late 1970s, when the
government banned the manufacture of paint containing lead.
That's why kids who live in older homes are at a greater
risk for lead poisoning. Also at risk are those who immigrate to
the United States or are adopted from a foreign country that
doesn't regulate the use of lead.
Lead is also found in other environmental areas, including:
- Contaminated soil, which is found near busy streets, in part
because lead was an ingredient in gasoline until the late 1970s.
The soil that surrounds homes that were painted with lead-based
paint may be contaminated too. Contaminated soil is a particular
concern because it can also introduce lead dust into the
- Water that flows through old lead pipes or faucets, if the
pipes begin to break down
- Food stored in bowls glazed or painted with lead, or imported
from countries that use lead to seal canned food
- Some toys, jewelry, hobby, and sports objects (like stained
glass, ink, paint, and plaster)
- Some folk or home remedies, such as greta and azarcon (used
to treat an upset stomach)
Signs of Lead Poisoning
Many kids with lead poisoning don't show any signs of being
sick, so it's important to eliminate lead risks at home
and to have your young child tested for lead exposure.
When kids do develop symptoms of lead poisoning, they usually
- irritability or behavioral problems
(eating of nonnutritious things such as dirt and paint
- difficulty concentrating
- loss of appetite
- weight loss
- sluggishness or fatigue
- abdominal pain
- vomiting or nausea
- pallor (pale skin) from anemia (lower than normal red blood
- metallic taste in mouth
- muscle and joint weakness or pain
These symptoms may also indicate a wide variety of other
illnesses, so if your child has any of them, talk to your
doctor. A blood test may be necessary to look for lead
poisoning or other health problems.
Treatment for lead poisoning varies depending on how much lead
is in the blood. Small amounts can often be treated rather easily;
the most important part of therapy is reduction of lead exposure.
Gradually, as the body naturally eliminates the lead, the level of
lead in the blood will fall.
Kids with severe cases and extremely high lead levels in
their blood will be hospitalized to receive a medication
called a chelating agent, which chemically binds with lead, through
an IV to make the lead weaker so the body can get rid of it
All siblings of a child found to have lead poisoning also should
be tested. Doctors will report cases of lead poisoning to
the public health department.
Protecting Your Family
You can protect your kids from lead poisoning by
ensuring that your home is lead-free - ask your local health
department about having your home evaluated for lead sources. And
have your kids tested for lead exposure, particularly if when
they're between 6 months and 3 years old. Kids this age
spend a lot of time on the floor and trying to put things in their
These tips can help you reduce the risk of lead exposure:
Be wary of old plumbing.
Old plumbing might be lined with lead. If you have an old
plumbing system (in homes built before 1970), let cold water
run from the faucet for a minute before drinking it. If possible,
drink bottled water instead. And because hot water absorbs more
lead than cold water, don't use hot tap water for meals.
Keep your home and your family clean.
Wash your child's hands and toys frequently, and keep dusty
surfaces clean with a wet cloth.
Ensure that iron and calcium are in your diets.
If kids are exposed to lead, good nutrition can reduce the
amount that will actually be absorbed inside the body. Eating
regular meals is helpful because lead is absorbed more during
Know where your kids play.
Keep them away from busy roads and the underside
If you suspect that you might have lead-based paint on your
walls, use a wet cloth to wipe windowsills and walls. Watch out for
water damage that can make paint peel. Sanding or heating
lead-based paint is a bad idea because these increase the risk that
lead will be inhaled. If the paint doesn't have many chips, a
new layer of paint, paneling, or drywall will probably reduce the
risk. It's best to consult a professional, especially because
other precautions may need to be taken to contain the lead in the
Kate M. Cronan, MD
Date reviewed: June 2006
Note: All information is for educational purposes only. For specific medical advice,
diagnoses, and treatment, consult your doctor.
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