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Lead Poisoning

What Is Lead Poisoning?

Lead poisoning happens when too much lead gets into the body. Lead can enter through the skin, or when a person breathes it in or eats or drinks something contaminated by lead. Lead in the body can hurt the brain, kidneys, and other organs.

Who Is at Risk for Lead Poisoning?

Lead is toxic to everyone, but children younger than 6 years 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 are more likely to have higher lead levels because they crawl around and put their hands and other things in their mouth.

Kids are especially at risk if they:

  • live in homes built before 1978
  • live in low-income households
  • 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.

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. Gasoline also contained lead, which was released into the air in car exhaust. Kids are exposed to lead from chipping paint; house dust; and contaminated soil around older homes, streets, airports, and industrial areas.

Kids also can come into contact with lead through:

  • water that flows through old lead pipes or lead solder
  • food stored in bowls glazed or painted with lead 
  • some old or imported toys, jewelry, pottery, and cosmetics. Lead has also been found in some imported candies and herbs.
  • some jobs (like welding, auto repair, and construction) or hobbies (like stained glass, home remodeling, lead soldering)
  • some traditional medicines, such as greta and azarcon (used to treat an upset stomach)

What Are the Signs & Symptoms of Lead Poisoning?

Many children with lead poisoning have no symptoms. But even low-level lead exposure 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 recommend checking kids for lead at 1 and 2 years old, when they’re most at risk for high lead levels. 

Lead testing is also recommended for kids who live in an older home or whose parent has a hobby or job that involves being around lead. Any child who might have been exposed to lead should get tested.

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:

  • Ask your doctor about having your kids tested for lead exposure.
  • Get your home checked for lead if it was built before 1978.
  • Get your water tested. Call your local water department to find a laboratory that will test your water for lead.
  • Regularly clean floors, windowsills, and dusty surfaces clean with a wet cloth or mop.
  • Wash your kids' hands and toys often.
  • Remove or wipe shoes before coming into the house.
  • Keep kids away from soil around old homes and busy roads.
  • Fix areas with peeling or chipped paint, such as windows and porches.
  • Follow safe practices when removing lead-based paint hazards. Find a lead-safe certified contractor for home renovations.
  • Serve a variety of healthy foods, such as dairy products, lean meat and beans, and fruit and vegetables.
Reviewed by: Mary L. Gavin, MD
Date reviewed: July 2021