Lead Poisoning

What Is Lead Poisoning?

Lead poisoning is what happens when lead builds up in your body over a period of months or years. 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. It can affect almost every organ and system in your body. The CDC estimates that about a half-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 serious health problems. It gets into your system through your bloodstream, and your body 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 it 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 the water service lines are old.

Imported canned goods. Some countries still use lead to seal food cans.

Soil. Particles from lead-based paint and leaded gasoline can land in the soil and stay there.

Toys. You can find lead paint on older toys and those from other countries that haven’t banned it yet.

Household dust. It’s a problem for older homes that once had lead paint. But you can bring soil with lead in it into any age 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.

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Certain occupations. People most likely to be exposed to lead or bring it home on their clothes are those who work in auto repair, mining, pipe fitting, battery manufacturing, painting, and construction.

Paint sets and art supplies. These paints could also have lead. Check the label.

Storage batteries. You might also hear them called lead acid batters. They’re the rechargeable type you’ll find in nonelectric cars.

Cosmetics. Tiro, a brand of eye makeup from Nigeria, was linked to lead poisoning.

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

Exposure to lead over a long period of time can cause permanent brain damage. At very high levels, lead poisoning can be fatal. But often there are no obvious symptoms of lead poisoning.

Symptoms of lead poisoning in adults:

Symptoms of lead poisoning in children include:

Lead poisoning can also damage an unborn child’s brain, kidneys, and nervous system.

Diagnosing Lead Poisoning

No level of lead in the blood is considered safe, especially for children. If you are worried about lead in your water, have it tested.

A simple blood test can tell if you or your child has lead poisoning. Most children 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. The doctor may suggest testing for older kids who haven’t been checked.

Adults who have symptoms or think they may have been exposed should see their doctor. Some workplaces where exposure is likely require regular testing. Other workers who are at risk, like house painters who have to scrape off old paint, should get tested every 1-2 months while exposure is likely.

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To do the blood test, the doctor will take blood from a vein in an arm or the end of a 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 children requires treatment. Most adults with a level of 80 mcg/dL or higher and all adults with a level of 100 mcg/dL or hither should be treated. If your blood level is 50 mcg/dL or higher and you have severe symptoms, your doctor may also suggest treatment.

Treating Lead Poisoning

If blood levels are low, it may be enough to remove the source of lead. If lead paint is the cause, you may be able to seal the paint rather than remove it.

For more severe cases, 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 is a good choice for children with a blood level of 45 mcg/dL or greater and adults with high blood levels or lead poisoning symptoms.
  • EDTA chelation therapy. This is an option for adults with lead levels greater than 45 mcg/dL and children who can't take regular chelation therapy medicine. This treatment uses a chemical called EDTA. You’ll get it as a shot.
WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Hansa D. Bhargava, MD on July 09, 2020

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.”

Nemours KidsHealth: “Lead Poisoning.”

Cedars-Sinai: “Lead Poisoning.”

Nemours SafetyStore: “Poison Prevention Safety Tips.”

OpenStax: “Chemistry.”

UpToDate: “Lead exposure and poisoning in adults.”

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