What Is Lead Poisoning?

Lead is a metal that’s found in nature, deep within the ground. It exists all around us too -- in the air, soil, water, and even in our homes. 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 dangerous because it can spread in your body and cause health problems, especially to a fetus and to children. It can affect almost every organ and system in your body.

What Causes Lead Poisoning?

It’s what happens when lead builds up in your body over a period of months or years. Even small amounts of the metal can cause serious health problems. It can get into your bloodstream. From there, it’s stored in your organs, tissues, bones, and teeth.

The main cause of lead poisoning is exposure to lead-based paint. The federal government outlawed it for use in new homes in 1978. But it can still be found in older homes.

The CDC estimates that about a half-million kids between ages 1 and 5 have high levels of lead in their blood. Your doctor can check this through a simple blood test. Medicaid and most private insurance cover these tests.

Symptoms

Often there are no obvious symptoms of lead poisoning. But if you’ve been exposed to lead over a long period of time, you might experience any of the following:

If you’re pregnant, lead poisoning can put you at risk for miscarriage. It can damage your unborn child’s brain, kidneys, and nervous system. It could also cause learning or behavior problems.

At very high levels, lead poisoning can be fatal.

WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Carol DerSarkissian on January 11, 2017

Sources

SOURCES:

National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences: “What is Lead?”

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency: “Learn About Lead.”

Harvard Medical School: “Lead.”

CDC: “Are You Pregnant?”

Mayo Clinic: “Lead Poisoning.”

© 2017 WebMD, LLC. All rights reserved.