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Lead Poisoning - Topic Overview

What is lead poisoning?

Lead poisoning occurs when you absorb too much lead by breathing or swallowing a substance with lead in it, such as paint, dust, water, or food. Lead can damage almost every organ system.

In children, too much lead in the body can cause lasting problems with growth and development. These can affect behavior, hearing, and learning and can slow the child's growth.

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In adults, lead poisoning can damage the brain and nervous system, the stomach, and the kidneys. It can also cause high blood pressure and other health problems.

Although it isn't normal to have lead in your body, a small amount is present in most people. Environmental laws have reduced lead exposure in the United States, but it is still a health risk, especially for young children.

What causes lead poisoning?

Lead poisoning is usually caused by months or years of exposure to small amounts of lead at home, work, or day care. It can also happen very quickly with exposure to a large amount of lead. Many things can contain or be contaminated with lead: paint, air, water, soil, food, and manufactured goods.

The most common source of lead exposure for children is lead-based paint and the dust and soil that are contaminated by it. This can be a problem in older homes and buildings.

Adults are most often exposed to lead at work or while doing hobbies that involve lead.

Who is at highest risk of lead poisoning?

Lead poisoning can occur at any age, but children are most likely to be affected by high lead levels. Children at highest risk include those who:

  • Live in or regularly visit homes or buildings built before 1978. These buildings may have lead-based paint. The risk is even higher in buildings built before 1950, when lead-based paint was more commonly used.
  • Are immigrants, refugees, or adoptees from other countries.1 They may have been exposed to higher lead levels in these countries.
  • Are 6 years old or younger. Young children are at higher risk because:
    • They often put their hands and objects in their mouths.
    • They sometimes swallow nonfood items.
    • Their bodies absorb lead at a higher rate.
    • Their brains are developing quickly.

Others at risk for lead poisoning include people who:

  • Drink water that flows through pipes that were soldered with lead.
  • Work with lead either in their job or as a hobby (for example, metal smelters, pottery makers, and stained glass artists).
  • Eat food from cans made with lead solder. These types of cans aren't made in the United States.
  • Cook or store food in ceramic containers. Some ceramic glaze contains lead that may not have been properly fired or cured.
  • Eat or breathe traditional or folk remedies that contain lead, such as some herbs and vitamins from other countries.
  • Live in communities with a lot of industrial pollution.
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