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Lead Poisoning

What is lead poisoning?

Lead is a highly toxic metal and a very strong poison. Lead poisoning is a serious and sometimes fatal condition. It occurs when lead builds up in the body.

Lead is found in lead-based paints, including paint on the walls of old houses and toys. It is also found in:

  • art supplies
  • contaminated dust
  • gasoline products sold outside of the United States and Canada

Lead poisoning usually occurs over a period of months or years. It can cause severe mental and physical impairment. Young children are most vulnerable.

Children get lead in their bodies by putting the lead containing objects in their mouths. Touching the lead and then putting their fingers in their mouths may also poison them. Lead is more harmful to children because their brains and nervous systems are still developing.

Lead poisoning can be treated, but any damage caused cannot be reversed.

What are the symptoms of lead poisoning?

Symptoms of lead poisoning are varied. They may affect many parts of the body. Most of the time, lead poisoning builds up slowly. It follows repeated exposures to small quantities of lead.

Lead toxicity is rare after a single exposure or ingestion of lead.

Signs of repeated lead exposure include:

Since a child’s brain is still developing, lead can lead to intellectual disability. Symptoms may include:

  • behavior problems
  • low IQ
  • poor grades at school
  • problems with hearing
  • short- and long-term learning difficulties
  • growth delays

A high, toxic dose of lead poisoning may result in emergency symptoms. These include:

If someone has symptoms of severe lead exposure, call emergency medical services. Be sure to have the following information ready to tell the emergency operator:

  • the person’s age
  • their weight
  • the source of the poisoning
  • the amount swallowed
  • the time the poisoning occurred

In nonemergency situations, call poison control to discuss lead poisoning symptoms. They will let you speak with an expert.

What causes lead poisoning?

Lead poisoning occurs when lead is ingested. Breathing in dust that contains lead can also cause it. You cannot smell or taste lead and it’s not visible to the naked eye.

In the United States, lead used to be common in house paint and gasoline. These products are not produced with lead any longer. However, lead is still present everywhere. It is especially found in older houses.

Common sources of lead include:

  • house paint made before 1978
  • toys and household items painted before 1976
  • toys made and painted outside the United States
  • bullets, curtain weights, and fishing sinkers made of lead
  • pipes and sink faucets, which can contaminate drinking water
  • soil polluted by car exhaust or chipping house paint
  • paint sets and art supplies
  • jewelry, pottery, and lead figures
  • storage batteries
  • kohl or kajal eyeliners
  • some traditional ethnic medicines

Who is at risk for lead poisoning?

Children are at the highest risk of lead poisoning, especially if they live in old houses with chipping paint. This is because children are prone to putting objects and fingers in their mouths.

People in developing countries are also at a higher risk. Many countries do not have strict rules regarding lead. If you adopt a child from a developing country, their lead levels should be checked.

How is lead poisoning diagnosed?

Lead poisoning is diagnosed with a blood lead test. This test is performed on a standard blood sample.

Lead is common in the environment. The National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences reports that no amount of lead in the blood is safe. It is known that levels as low as 5 micrograms per deciliter can be associated with health problems in children.

Additional tests could include blood tests to look at the amount of iron storing cells in the blood, X-rays, and possibly a bone marrow biopsy.

How is lead poisoning treated?

The first step of treatment is to locate and remove the source of the lead. Keep children away from the source. If it cannot be removed, it should be sealed. Call your local health department for information on how to remove lead. They can also help you reduce the likelihood of lead exposure.

In more severe cases, a procedure known as chelation therapy can be used. This treatment binds to lead that has accumulated in your body. The lead is then excreted in your urine.

Activated charcoal can be used to bind the lead in the gastrointestinal tract and encourage elimination via defecation. A chemical called EDTA may also be used

Even with treatment, it can be hard to reverse the effects of chronic exposure.

What is the outlook for lead poisoning?

Adults with moderate exposure usually recover without any complications.

In children, recovery can take time. Even low lead exposure can cause permanent intellectual disability.

How can lead poisoning be prevented?

Simple steps can help you prevent lead poisoning. These include:

  • Avoid or throw away painted toys and canned goods from foreign countries.
  • Keep your home free from dust.
  • Use only cold water to prepare foods and drinks.
  • Make sure everyone washes their hands before eating.
  • Test your water for lead. If lead levels are high, use a filtering device or drink bottled water.
  • Clean faucets and aerators regularly.
  • Wash children’s toys and bottles regularly.
  • Teach your children to wash their hands after playing.
  • Make sure any contractor doing work in your house is certified in lead control.
  • Use lead-free paint in your home.
  • Take young children for blood lead level screening at their pediatrician’s office. This is usually done around 1 to 2 years of age.
  • Avoid areas where lead-based paint may have been used.

If you have any questions regarding the safe removal of lead, the following resources can help:

  • Housing and Urban Development (HUD): 800-RID-LEAD
  • National Information Center: 800-LEAD-FYI
  • National Lead Information Center: 800-424-5323

Content licensed from:

Written by: Jacquelyn Cafasso
Medically reviewed on: Jun 21, 2016: University of Illinois-Chicago, College of Medicine

This feature is for informational purposes only and should not be used to replace the care and information received from your health care provider. Please consult a health care professional with any health concerns you may have.
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