What Is Lead Poisoning?
Lead is a metal that's found in nature. It exists all around us—in the air, soil, water, and even in our homes. If lead builds up in your body over months or years, you have what's called lead poisoning.
In the late 1970s, the federal government passed measures to reduce the amount of lead in the environment and in the products we use. Still, it's often found in things like paint, ceramics, pipes, plumbing materials, and cosmetics.
Lead is harmful because it can affect almost every organ and system in your body. The CDC estimates that about half a million kids between ages 1 and 5 have high levels of lead in their blood.
Causes of Lead Poisoning
Even small amounts of lead can cause severe health problems. Lead gets into your system through your bloodstream. Your body then stores it in your organs, tissues, bones, and teeth. Where does it come from?
Lead-based paint. This is the main cause of lead poisoning. The federal government outlawed lead-based paint for use in new homes in 1978. But it can still be found in older homes.
Water pipes. Older homes often have lead pipes. Sometimes, brass or copper plumbing fixtures or pipes are welded with lead. Lead can also be found in newer homes if your water service lines (the pipes that run from your home to the source of your water) are old.
Imported canned goods. Some countries still use lead to seal food cans.
Soil. Tiny amounts of lead-based paint and leaded gasoline can get in the soil and stay there.
Toys. You can find lead paint in older toys and toys from other countries that haven't banned it yet.
Household dust. This is a problem for older homes that once had lead paint. But you can bring soil with lead in it into any home.
Pottery. Glazes and paint used on pottery, china, and porcelain could contain lead.
Lead bullets. This is more likely for people who spend time at a firing range.
Some jobs. You're most likely to be exposed to lead or bring it home on your clothes if you work in auto repair, mining, pipe fitting, battery manufacturing, painting, or construction.
Paint sets and art supplies. These paints could also have lead. You may not know until you check the label.
Storage batteries. You might also hear these called lead acid batteries. They're the rechargeable type you find in nonelectric cars.
Cosmetics. For instance, some products, like eyeliners that contain kohl, have been linked to lead poisoning. They're not allowed to be sold in the U.S. for that reason.
Herbal or folk remedies. The traditional Hispanic medicines greta and azarcon, along with remedies from China, India, and other countries, are tied to lead poisoning.
Candy. Candies from Mexico made with tamarind might also contain lead.
Symptoms of Lead Poisoning
Being exposed to lead over a long period can cause lasting brain damage. At very high levels, lead poisoning can be fatal. But often there are no clear symptoms of lead poisoning.
Signs of lead poisoning in adults:
Signs of lead poisoning in children include:
- Muscle and joint weakness
- Muscle and joint pain
- Feeling tired
- Looking pale
- Behavior problems
- Finding it hard to pay attention
- A metal-like taste in your mouth
- Loss of appetite (not wanting to eat)
- Weight loss
- Nausea and vomiting
- Constipation (trouble going poop)
- Kidney problems
- Hearing loss
Diagnosing Lead Poisoning
No level of lead in your blood is safe, especially for children. If you're worried about lead in your water, have it tested.
A simple blood test can tell if you or your child has lead poisoning. Most kids are tested in the doctors' office at ages 1 and 2. You might want to get it done more often if you live in an area with older homes. Your doctor may suggest testing for older kids who haven't been checked.
If you have symptoms or think you may have been exposed to lead, see your doctor. Some workplaces do routine blood lead level testing. If you know that you're around lead on a daily basis (like you scrape old paint off houses for your job) you may want to get tested every 1-2 months.
To do the blood test, a doctor will take blood from a vein in your arm or the end of your finger. Lead content is measured in micrograms per deciliter (mcg/dL) of blood. There's no safe level of lead in your blood, but 5 mcg/dL is enough to require ongoing testing.
A level of 45 mcg/dL or higher in kids means that treatment is needed. Most adults with a level of 80 mcg/dL or higher and all adults with a level of 100 mcg/dL or higher should also be treated. If your blood level is at least 50 mcg/dL and you have severe symptoms, your doctor may also suggest treatment.
Treating Lead Poisoning
If you have a low level of lead in your blood, it may be enough to remove the source of lead from your home. For instance, if lead paint is the cause, you may be able to seal it so it doesn't cause further problems. For more severe cases of lead poisoning, your doctor might suggest:
- Chelation therapy. You'll get a medication called DMSA that you take by mouth. It binds with the lead so it leaves your body when you pee. This treatment's a good choice for children with a blood level of 45 mcg/dL or higher and adults with high blood levels or lead poisoning symptoms.
- Ethylenediaminetetraacetic acid (EDTA) chelation therapy. If your lead levels are higher than 45 mcg/dL or your child can't take regular chelation therapy medicine, your doctor may suggest this treatment. It uses a chemical called EDTA to combine with the lead so you then pee it out. You'll get this treatment as a shot or in your vein (through an IV line).
Lead Poisoning Prevention
There's plenty that you can do to protect yourself from lead.
Take extra care with older homes
If you live in a house built before 1978, have it tested for lead. Hire a trained professional if you can. You could also use a home test kit. Just remember that these kits only test for lead on the surface, not in the layers underneath.
Be careful before starting big projects if you live in an old home or apartment. Assume that there's lead in the paint unless you know otherwise. Once you start a repair, remodel, or painting job, you can expose lead paint and send tiny flakes of it into the air.
Stay safe outdoors
Any structures built before 1978—houses, schools, barns, sheds, fences, and playground equipment—might have once had lead paint on the outside. As that paint breaks down, it can taint the soil beneath it.
Soil that has lead in it can affect any plants that grow there. For instance, carrots and other vegetables grown in lead-tainted soil can contain lead.
Call your local department of health and ask how to get your soil tested for lead. If the test is positive, you have a few options. You could reduce your 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.
Keep an eye on your child
It's hard to be 100% sure if a toy has lead in it or not. Start by checking www.recalls.gov to see if a certain toy has been labeled unsafe.
Be careful with cheaper toys, especially plastic ones. Lead is often used to make plastic softer and more flexible. If your child is putting a toy in their mouth and you're not sure it's lead-free, it's a good idea to take it away. (And never let your child play with anything they could swallow by mistake.)
Don't let your kids play with older toys if you don't know they're lead-free. That may mean saying no thanks to hand-me-downs or toys you find at garage sales or thrift stores. Remove any toy with chipped paint.
The safest choices for toys are unpainted wood, stuffed animals, and books.
Watch out for lead in your water
It's not just public water systems that can be tainted with lead. Private wells can also be have lead in parts of the pump or the well. Contact your local health department or water utility to find out how you can test your water.
If the source of the lead is inside your home, like in pipes, solder, or well equipment, and you can't afford to remove it, take other steps to stay safe.
Only use cold water for cooking, drinking, or for making baby formula. Hot water is more likely to contain higher lead levels. If you haven't used a faucet in 6 hours or more, let it run for 1-2 minutes before drinking or cooking with it. The longer water has been sitting in the pipes, the more lead it can absorb.
You may also want to buy a filter that's been proven to remove lead. Look for a brand that's been tested by an independent group, like NSF International.
Other tips to lower lead poisoning risks
If there's lead in your home—or you think there might be—take some simple steps to reduce your family's risk.
- 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.
- Clean your child's hands. Many kids who get lead poisoning transfer lead from their hands to their mouths. Try to wash your child's hands often.
- 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. Ask your doctor if you need some tips on choosing good-for-you foods.
- Make sure your kids have lead tests. Because lead poisoning has no symptoms, it's the only way to check. Routine testing is advised for kids younger than age 5. Check with your doctor about whether your older children should also be tested.