Lead is a metal that is poisonous (toxic) when inhaled or eaten. Lead gets into the bloodstream. It is stored in the organs, tissues, bones and teeth.
With increasing or prolonged exposure, lead can cause:
The leading source of exposure to lead is lead-based paint. This was outlawed for residential use in 1978. But it remains in some older homes. The main hazard is paint dust. Paint dust enters the air when old paint is scraped, sanded or begins to flake.
People can get lead into their bodies in other ways. These include:
Children face the most serious risk. Their growing bodies absorb more lead. Young children, especially toddlers, tend to put objects in their mouths that may be covered with lead dust. If lead paint is flaking, small children sometimes eat the sweet tasting paint chips. Or they chew on painted surfaces, such as window sills.
Adults who have high lead levels in their blood usually were exposed in the workplace. Industries with a high potential for exposure include:
Young children can be exposed to lead when parents who work in these areas carry lead dust home on their clothes and shoes.
A woman who had lead poisoning can pass lead on to her fetus if she becomes pregnant. This remains true even if she no longer is exposed to lead.
Since lead was banned in gasoline and residential paint, average blood levels of lead have dropped dramatically in the United States.
In children, lead levels of 10 micrograms or more per deciliter (mcg/dL) of blood are known to be hazardous. Recent studies suggest that even lower levels may be harmful. Pediatricians closely monitor children whose lead level is approaching 10 (mcg/dL). They are encouraged to look carefully for possible sources of lead exposure.
Children with blood lead levels of 10 to 25 mcg/dL usually do not show any obvious symptoms of too much lead in the body. The damage may not be obvious. It only becomes noticeable at school age, when the child shows signs of possible learning disabilities, behavioral problems or mental retardation.
At higher exposures, children may experience:
Adults with blood lead levels of 40 to 50 mcg/dL may display some of the same symptoms, or any of the following:
A doctor who thinks someone has lead poisoning will do a physical examination. He or she will ask about:
Lead poisoning is diagnosed with a simple blood test.
Blood tests can also be used for lead screening. Because there are often no early symptoms, a blood test is the best way to identify children at risk of lead poisoning at an early stage.
Lead screening typically starts at age 6 months to 12 months. Lead screening guidelines vary from state to state, but the minimum screening is at 1 and 2 years. The CDC and the American Academy of Pediatrics recommend that children under age 6 be tested for lead if they:
It may take several weeks, months or years for lead to leave the body, even after there is no further exposure.
To prevent lead poisoning, avoid or minimize exposure to lead. Remove lead paint or contain it with frequent cleaning:
For more information on sources of lead poisoning and ways to prevent them, visit the Lead website at the Centers for Disease Control.
For all cases of lead exposure, the most important step is to remove the source of lead. When this is done, treatment is not usually necessary if the blood lead level is less than 20 mcg/dL. However, repeat blood tests to be sure the amount of lead in the bloodstream stays low.
Higher levels of lead in the bloodstream may need to be treated. Treatment consists of taking a drug that binds to the lead and helps the body to remove it. This process is called chelation therapy.
Doctors decide whether to use chelation therapy on a case-by-case basis. Very high levels of lead (70 mcg/dL or greater) sometimes require hospitalization to begin therapy.
After treatment and/or removal of the environmental lead source, the doctor normally will do more blood lead tests. Blood tests help track blood levels until they are no longer too high.
Besides recommending a nutritious diet, the doctor also may recommend iron or calcium supplements. If a child with lead poisoning has iron-deficiency anemia, it is very important that the anemia be treated. Anemia puts the child at higher risk.
If you are the parent or guardian of a child under age 6, make sure he or she visits a health professional regularly. Discuss possible risks of lead poisoning with the doctor have your child get tested if necessary.
See the child's doctor immediately if you notice symptoms of lead poisoning or suspect that the child has been exposed to lead.
The outlook for children with lead poisoning depends on:
Children with brief, low-level exposures usually recover completely. Many children with low to moderate lead exposure for prolonged periods have decreased intellectual function. Even with appropriate treatment, children with high levels of blood lead can have severe, irreversible brain damage.
American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP)
141 Northwest Point Blvd.
Elk Grove Village, IL 60007-1098
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Lead Poisoning Prevention Program
National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health
4676 Columbia Parkway
Mail Stop C-18
Cincinnati, OH 45226
National Safety Council
1121 Spring Lake Drive
Itasca, IL 60143-3201
U.S. Department of Labor's Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA)
200 Constitution Ave.
Washington, D.C. 20210
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)
Ariel Rios Building
1200 Pennsylvania Ave., N.W.
Washington, DC 20460