Lead Poisoning

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Harvard Medical School
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Lead Poisoning

Reviewed by the Faculty of Harvard Medical School



Lead is a metal that has been used in many products (for example, paint and pipes) since ancient times because it resists corrosion. If inhaled or ingested, lead is poisonous to the human body. Once it enters the body, lead gets absorbed into the blood and is then deposited in organs, tissue, teeth and bones. Elevated lead levels in the body have been known to cause developmental delays, behavioral problems, fatigue, headaches, abdominal pain, low red blood cell count (anemia), seizures and even coma.

Lead paint in homes is the major source of lead that poisons children in the United States. Lead-containing paint dust can be in the air or can build up on surfaces, including the dirt around the house. Children then breathe the air or put objects in their mouths that contain this lead dust. They also may chew on painted surfaces, such as window ledges, or eat sweet-tasting paint chips. Lead poisoning used to affect large numbers of children until lead-containing paint was banned in 1978. Although the number of lead poisonings has decreased dramatically, there still are more than 4 million homes in the United States that are contaminated with lead paint, and almost 500,000 children with high levels of lead in their blood.

Unfortunately, there usually are no initial symptoms of lead poisoning. The first signs may not appear until school age, when children start to show signs of learning disabilities, behavioral problems or mental retardation. Early detection of lead poisoning can prevent these later problems. The best way to identify children at risk of lead poisoning is by screening, starting at 6 months of age.


The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Academy of Pediatrics recommend that children younger than age 6 be tested for lead if they:

  • Live in, or frequently visit a house or child-care center built before 1950 (when lead levels in paint were particularly high), or one built before 1978 that has been remodeled in the last six months
  • Have a brother, sister, housemate or playmate who is being treated for, or has been treated for, lead poisoning
  • Live near an active smelter (metal processing plant), battery recycling plant or other industries likely to put lead into the air
  • Live with a parent whose job or hobby involves exposure to lead (for example, working with lead solder)
  • Have been seen eating paint chips or dirt
  • Have low levels of iron in the blood (anemia)

If you suspect your child may be at risk of lead poisoning, speak with your doctor. Lead exposure can be diagnosed with a simple blood test.

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In most cases, a child's body eventually will get rid of lead once the source has been removed. Children with high blood-lead levels may need medicine to help the body get rid of the lead, a process called chelation therapy.

After treatment or removal of the environmental lead source, the doctor normally will do another blood-lead test or series of tests to monitor progress until the blood-lead level is back to normal. Besides recommending a nutritious diet, the doctor also may recommend iron or calcium supplements.

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The best way to prevent lead poisoning is by removing all sources of lead. If you are not sure whether your home has lead paint, purchase a lead test kit at your local hardware store, or call your state health department to send a certified inspector to your home. If you have any lead-based paint in your home, you will need a certified contractor to remove it properly. Removing it yourself may actually worsen the problem; in some cases, removal is not even the best option, because you could also poison yourself in the process.

If your home does contain lead paint, be sure to keep all surfaces clean. Careful and frequent cleaning alone has been shown to reduce lead hazards substantially. Wipe windowsills and other areas of flaking paint or paint dust regularly with a cloth dampened with a general, all-purpose cleaner or one made specifically for lead.

Do not let children eat any paint chips, and if you live in an area with high lead levels, do not let children eat dirt.

Lead pipes or lead solder in your plumbing is a problem. If you have an older house and are not sure about the pipes, call your local health department or water supplier for information on getting your water tested. Meanwhile, use only cold water for drinking and cooking, and run the water for 15 to 30 seconds before drinking it, especially if you have not used the water from that faucet for a few hours.

If your job involves potential lead exposure, insist that your employer comply with all federal and state laws to protect workers and to monitor their health. Follow all recommended measures (masks, protective clothing, etc.) in protecting yourself. Before coming home, shower and change your clothes. Launder your clothes separately from those of the rest of the family.

Avoid storing food in lead crystal or lead-glazed dishes. Do not use folk remedies that contain lead, such as greta and azarcon, for an upset stomach.

Since inhaled or ingested lead is poisonous to the human body, it is important to follow the above guidelines in making your home as lead-free as possible.

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For more information, contact:

American Academy of Pediatrics
Phone: 847-228-5005

National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health
Toll-free: 1-800-232-4636

National Safety Council
Phone: 1-800-621-7615

U.S. Department of Labor's Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA)
Toll-free: 1-800-321-OSHA (6742)

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)
TTY: 202-272-0165


Last updated August 20, 2014

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