5 Surprising Sources of Lead Exposure

Medically Reviewed by Sabrina Felson, MD on October 30, 2021
6 min read

Lead poisoning is a serious risk for young kids. According to the Centers of Disease Control, more than half a million children ages 1-5 in the U.S. have blood lead levels high enough to damage their health. Even with treatment, lead poisoning can permanently affect a child's development. Because their bodies are small and growing, babies and young children are at greatest risk.

Many parents don't know much about how to prevent lead poisoning. Lead isn't only in paint chips. It can show up in surprising places -- like dust on your windowsill, or in your vegetable garden, or in a playground. Here are five surprising sources of lead -- and tips on how to keep your kids safe.

Lead Dust

Parents might worry about a baby eating big chips of lead paint. But it's the little paint chips -- so small that they're just bits of dust -- that experts say are a bigger concern.

Although lead-based paint hasn't been sold since 1978, plenty of older homes still have it. Tiny fragments of lead paint can float through the air and accumulate on surfaces throughout your house. Babies can pick them up on their hands and get them into their mouths. They can also breathe them in directly. Contrary to what you might think, it doesn't take much. Even at very low levels of exposure, lead dust can cause harm.

What you can do: If you live in a home built before 1978, have your home tested for lead. Ideally, hire a trained professional. Although less reliable, you could also test surface paint yourself with a home kit.

If you have lead, look into abatement. It can be expensive. Often, a cheaper option is encapsulation -- sealing the lead paint with a fresh layer of new paint.

Whatever you do, don't start scraping or sanding paint without precautions. That will just send lead dust throughout your home.

Lead and Home Renovations

Once you start a repair, painting, or renovation project in an older home, you can expose lead paint and send particles of it into the air.

Some states report that renovations are the single most common cause of childhood lead poisoning. One study in Wisconsin found that kids who lived in a building while it was being renovated had a 30% higher chance of lead poisoning than kids who didn't.

What you can do: If you're in an older home, be cautious before starting renovations. You should assume that there's lead in the paint unless you know otherwise. Remember that home kits will only test for lead on the surface, not in the layers beneath.

Check to make sure that your contractor or painter has been certified by the EPA in lead-safe work practices. If you're doing the construction yourself, get information from the EPA or the National Lead Information Center on how to do it safely.

If there's construction going on at your child's daycare or school, make certain they are taking precautions to prevent lead poisoning too.

Lead in the Backyard or Playground

Any structures built before 1978 -- houses, schools, barns, sheds, fences, and playground equipment -- might have once had lead paint on the exterior. As that paint breaks down, it can contaminate the soil beneath it.

A child playing in a yard or playground could pick up lead on their hands and swallow it. Some types of artificial turf and rubber playground surfaces can also contain lead.

Contaminated soil can affect the plants that grow in it. Carrots and other vegetables grown in lead-tainted soil can contain lead.

What you can do: Call your local department of health and ask how to get your soil tested for lead. If it's positive, you have a few options. You could reduce the risk by covering the area with thick grass, wood chips, or gravel; you could also pave it. Fencing off the area is another way to prevent your child from playing near it.

Never grow a garden in soil that's contaminated with lead. It's not worth the risk.

Lead in Children's Toys

Imported toys tainted with lead can be an issue. The lead can be both in the paint and in the plastic itself. Sucking or chewing on the toy -- or getting lead on the hands -- can be enough to poison a child.

Old toys are also a risk, especially if they have peeling paint.

Swallowing a toy with high lead levels can be very dangerous. Several kids have become gravely ill as a result.

What You Can Do: It's hard to be absolutely sure if a toy has lead in it or not. Start by checking www.recalls.gov to see if a specific toy has been recalled.

Be wary of cheaper toys -- like those from vending machines or street fairs -- and especially plastic jewelry. If you notice that your child is putting a toy in their mouth frequently and you're not absolutely sure it's lead-free, take it away. To lower the risks of poisoning, make sure that your child is playing with age-appropriate toys that they're not at risk of swallowing.

Don’t let your kids play with older toys if you don't know they're lead-free. That can mean declining hand-me-downs and toys purchased at garage sales or thrift stores. Remove any toy with chipped paint.

The safest choices for toys are unpainted wood, stuffed animals, and books.

Lead in Water Pipes

10%-20% of childhood lead poisoning is caused by contaminated drinking water. It might not surprise you that old plumbing -- especially from 1930 or earlier -- can contain lead. Some pipes were actually made of lead, and brass fixtures can also contain some lead.

Here's what is surprising: pipes in very new homes are potentially a greater risk for lead. Some plumbers still use lead solder to join copper pipes, which exposes the water directly to lead. The risk is highest in houses that are less than five years old; after that, mineral deposits build up in the pipes that insulate the water from the lead in the solder. According to the EPA, you should assume that any building less than five years old has lead-contaminated water.

Private wells can also be contaminated by lead in pump components or the well seal. Although pipes inside a home are usually the source of lead poisoning, sometimes lead comes from old pipes in the street that supply the water to your home.

What You Can Do: Contact your local health department or water utility to find out how you can get your water tested for lead.

If the source of the lead is in your home it -- in pipes, solder, or well equipment -- and you can't afford to remove it, take other precautions.

Only use cold water for cooking or drinking -- or for making baby formula -- because hot water is more likely to contain higher lead levels. If you haven't used a faucet in the last six hours, flush it out for one to two minutes before drinking or cooking with it. The longer water has been sitting in the pipes, the more lead it can absorb.

You can also consider a filter that has been proven to remove lead by an independent testing organization, like NSF international.

Other Tips for Reducing Lead Poisoning Risks

If there's lead in your home -- or there might be -- taking some simple precautions can reduce your child's risks.

  • Keep your home clean. Try to control dust in your house. Regularly wipe it up with a wet sponge or rag, especially in areas where friction might create dust from paint, like drawers, windows, and doors.
  • Don't track lead in from outside. Take off your shoes as you enter the house.
  • Keep your child's hands clean. Many children who get lead poisoning transfer lead from their hands to their mouths. Get in the habit of washing your child's hands frequently.
  • Wash toys, pacifiers, and bottles regularly. Anything that goes in your child's mouth needs to be clean.
  • Eat a healthy diet. Children who eat healthier diets seem to absorb less lead than children who don't.
  • Make sure your kids have the recommended lead tests. Since lead poisoning has no symptoms, it’s the only way to make sure that they haven't been affected. Routine testing is recommended for children younger than age 5. Ask your doctor about whether or not your older children should also be tested.