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Lead Poisoning

What is lead poisoning?

  • Lead poisoning is one of the most common environmental child health problems in the United States and is caused by too much lead in the body.
  • Children are most commonly exposed to lead by the ingestion of paint chips or dirt that is contaminated with lead.
  • Over 300,000 U.S. children aged 1-5 years have blood lead levels greater than the CDC recommended level of 10 micrograms of lead per deciliter of blood.
  • Large amounts of lead in a child’s blood can cause behavioral problems (e.g., hyperactivity), anemia (low blood count), liver and kidney damage, hearing loss, and developmental delay (i.e. learning disabilities).

Where does lead come from?

1.       The removal of lead from gasoline has greatly reduced atmospheric concentrations of lead and is reflected in the lower levels of lead in children’s blood. However, because lead stays in the environment, lead from car and truck exhaust still can be found in soil.

2.       The major source of lead exposure among U.S. children is lead-based paint and lead-contaminated dust found in deteriorating buildings.

  • Lead-based paints were banned for use in housing in 1978. About 75 percent of houses and apartments built before 1978 in the U.S. contain lead paint. Houses built before 1960 may contain old lead paint with concentrations up to 50 percent lead by weight.
  • Despite the 1978 ban, millions of homes in the U.S. have deteriorated leaded paint and elevated levels of lead-contaminated house dust. Approximately two million US children under the age of six live in homes with decaying or deteriorating lead paint.
  • Lead dust is released from chipping and peeling paint and home renovation projects that disturb lead paint.  The dust can be very hard to see and is hard to clean up.
  • Children get exposed to lead paint and lead dust by the following:

o        chewing on a lead painted windowsill

o        eating lead paint chips

o        getting lead dust on their hands and putting their hands into their mouths

o        many children are poisoned by lead dust brought home by their parents from the workplace where lead is found.

o        playing in the dirt on public playgrounds and in their own yards

3.       Another source of lead can be found in drinking water.

  • The Environmental Protection Agency estimates drinking water is the source of about 20 percent of Americans’ lead exposure.
  • Lead leaches out into the water from old lead pipes and from home plumbing. Even after lead pipes were banned, leaded solder was legal for use on drinking water lines until the 1980s and is still for sale in hardware stores. Faucets and plumbing fittings may legally contain up to 8 percent lead.
  • The greatest risk is to infants using formula mixed with contaminated water.

4.       Other sources of lead:

  • Your child may be at risk of lead poisoning if he has family members that work at a place or has a hobby that involves any of the following:
  • Home health remedies and certain cosmetics
    • radiator repair
    • lead industry
    • welding
    • battery manufacture or repair
    • house construction or repair
    • smelting
    • chemical preparation
    • making pottery
    • going to a firing range
    • stained glass with lead solder
    • brass or copper foundry
    • valve and pipe fittings
    • bridge, tunnel and elevated highway construction
    • industrial machinery or equipment
    • refinishing furniture
    • automotive repair shop
    • lead sinkers used for fishing
    • lead soldiers and other collectible figurines
    • imported bead necklaces and costume jewelry, especially those with metallic cubes.

o        arzacon and greta, which are used for upset stomach or indigestion

o        pay-loo-ah, which is used for rash or fever

o        cosmetics (such as kohl)

  • Lead can leach into food or beverages stored in

imported ceramics or pottery and crystal and china

containing lead.

Why is there concern about low lead levels in children?

  • Even small amounts of lead can harm a child’s brain, kidneys and stomach. Lead poisoning can slow a child’s development and cause learning and behavior problems.
  • A child may have lead poisoning and not feel sick. Or the child may have stomach aches, headaches, a poor appetite or trouble sleeping, or be cranky, tired or restless.
  • There is new evidence that lead poisoning is harmful at blood levels once thought safe. Lower IQ scores, slower development and more attention problems have been observed in children with lead levels as low as 10 and possibly as low as 5 micrograms per deciliter.
  • Low-level exposure stunts the growth of children, both while in the womb and as they grow to adolescence.
  • Given the same exposure dosage of lead, children will absorb more than adults. An infant may absorb up to 50 percent of the lead dose through the intestine, while an adult may absorb only 10 percent of the same lead dose. Also, lead passes more easily into the brain of an infant than older children and adults.

How can parents find out if their child has too much lead?

  • Ask your doctor about testing your child if you are concerned about your child being exposed to lead.
  • A blood test is the only way to find out if a child has too much lead. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends testing every child at 12 months of age, and if resources allow, at 24 months.
  • Screening should start at 6 months if the child is at risk of lead exposure.

o        Among poor children, average blood lead levels remain four times higher than those of children who do not live in poverty.

What do the test results mean?

  • The test will identify how many micrograms of lead are found in one deciliter (ug/dL) of the child’s blood. Based on what is known today, children should have under 10 ug/dL, preferably under 5 ug/dL, of blood lead concentration.  If higher levels are found, there are certain steps that can be taken.

o        At a lead level of 10-19, a child has mild lead poisoning. He or she should be retested in a few months. The home and all the places the child spends time should be checked for lead sources. Identified lead hazards should be controlled.

o        At 20-44, a child has moderate lead poisoning. Sources of lead in the child’s environment must be removed. Such a child may need medicine to remove lead from the body. The child may be hospitalized if there is no guarantee that he or she can return to a lead-free safe home.

o        At 45-69, a child has severe lead poisoning. A child needs both medication and lead removed from the environment. The child may be hospitalized and not be released until he or she can return to a lead-free safe home.

o        Over 70, it is a major medical emergency. The child will stay in the hospital for treatment and not be released until he or she can return to a lead-free safe home.




What can I do as a parent to reduce blood-lead levels in my children?

Some interventions suggested by CDC include:


  • Keep children away from peeling or chipping paint and accessible or chewable surfaces painted with lead-based paint, especially windows, window sills, and window wells.
  • Cover paint that is peeling or chipping with duct tape until it can be removed.
  • Wet mop and wet wipe hard surfaces, using trisodium phosphate detergent (found at hardware stores) or automatic dishwasher soap and water.
  • Do not vacuum hard surfaces because this may scatter dust.
  • Wash children’s hands and faces before they eat.
  • Wash toys and pacifiers frequently.


  • Make sure children eat regular nutritious meals, since more lead is absorbed on an empty stomach and in children who are undernourished.
  • Make sure children’s diets contain plenty of iron and calcium:
    • Examples of foods high in iron are liver, fortified cereal, cooked beans, spinach, and raisins.
    • Examples of foods high in calcium are milk, yogurt, cheese, and cooked greens.


  • If soil around the home is likely to be lead-contaminated (such as around a home built before 1960 or near a major highway), plant grass or other ground cover.
  • If lead-based paint is the source of soil contamination, most lead will be near painted surfaces such as exterior walls. In such cases, plant bushes next to the house to keep children away.
  • Encourage your children to play in grassy areas or in sand and not in the dirt, to wash his hands after returning home from playing outside and to not eat dirt.


  • If the lead content of tap water in the home is higher than the drinking water standard, use only water from the cold-water tap for drinking, cooking and for making baby formula and let the water run for several minutes before using it.
    • Hot water is more likely to contain higher levels of lead, and most of the lead in household water usually comes from the plumbing in your house, not from the local water supply.
    • For information on how to get drinking water tested, call the Environmental Protection Agency’s Safe Drinking Water Hotline at 1-800-426-4791.


  • Do not store food in open cans, especially imported cans. Do not store or serve food in pottery that is meant for decorative use. Also, do not store food orbeverages in lead crystal or china.

Health remedies or cosmetics:

  • Avoid using home remedies (such as arzacon and greta) and cosmetics (such as kohl) that contain lead.

Parents’ work or hobbies:

  • If members of the family work with lead, make sure children are not exposed through any lead-contaminated clothing brought home.
  • If your job or hobby involves your working with lead, you should shower and change your clothes before coming home and take your shoes off before entering the house.

How can I get my house inspected for lead if a risk factor exists?

  • Talk to your state or local health department about testing paint and dust from your home for lead if you live in a house or apartment built before 1978, especially if young children live with you or visit you.

What about removing lead-based paint from a house?

  • If inspection shows the house has lead-based paint, the family should not renovate or attempt to remove the paint themselves. Work should be done by someone who knows how to protect workers, the family and the environment. The family should not be in the home during renovations or paint removal.

For other information:

The National Lead Information Center at 1-800-LEAD-FYI (1-800-532-3394). Materials are available in Spanish and English.