A concerning number of cases of lead poisoning have been reported in the press over the last year. This leaves parents worried that their children might have been exposed to lead, and wondering what the consequences of lead exposure might be.
Let's talk about some of the most important things you need to know about lead exposure and poisoning.
Frequently Asked Questions
- What is lead?
- Why is lead exposure a concern?
- What are the most common causes of lead exposure?
- Who is at risk of lead poisoning?
- What are the signs and symptoms of lead exposure?
- How is lead posioning treated?
- How can I prevent lead exposure?
- How can I test myself or my child for lead exposure?</a
What is lead?
Lead is a naturally occurring heavy metal which can be found deep in the ground in many countries. It has been used all across the world in many products (paint, pipes and solders, gasoline and batteries).
Why is lead exposure a concern?
Exposure to lead is dangerous for both adults and children. The National Toxicology Program in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has reported that even low levels of lead in the blood (<5ug/dL) are associated with behavioral problems and cognitive performance in children. The same report found some evidence of reduced kidney function in children over 12 years old and delayed puberty due to lead exposure.
In adults, the National Toxicology Program reported that low levels of lead in the blood (<5ug/dL) are linked to decreased kidney function. At higher levels, lead exposure can be associated with increased blood pressure and hypertension. Pregnant women exposed to lead are at risk of reduced growth of the fetus, with some evidence that they may be at increased risk of miscarriage and preterm birth.
Most concerning is the fact that there is no safe level of lead in the blood. Even low blood lead levels are associated with significant health effects.
What are the most common causes of lead exposure?
The most common sources of lead exposure in the U.S. are:
- Lead based paint in older homes (pre-1978)
- Drinking water (from lead pipes)
- Lead can be found in some jewelry and toys
- Contaminated soil
- Household dust
Who is at risk of lead poisoning?
Children are at an increased risk of lead poisoning because they can absorb more lead than adults and they are rapidly growing and developing. Children are also more likely to put their hands in their mouth after touching lead contaminated surfaces. Children living in older houses are at particular risk.
What are the signs and symptoms of lead poisoning?
Lead exposure can affect a child’s development and behavior in a number of ways. They can experience issues with memory and concentration, hearing problems and poor growth. Depending on the amount of lead that a child has been exposed to, the symptoms might not always be obvious and they might resemble other common childhood illnesses.
Signs and symptoms of lead poisoning in children include:
- Developmental delay
- Learning difficulties
- Loss of appetite
- Weight loss
- Sluggishness and fatigue
- Abdominal (stomach) pain
- Hearing loss
- Eating things that aren't food such as paint chips (pica)
Long-term lead exposure for adults can also be very detrimental to health and wellbeing.
Signs and symptoms of lead poisoning in adults include:
- High blood pressure
- Joint and muscle pain
- Difficulties with memory or concentration
- Abdominal pain
- Mood disorders
- Reduced sperm count and abnormal sperm
- Miscarriage, stillbirth or premature birth in pregnant women
How is lead poisoning treated?
The best way to prevent lead poisoning is to prevent exposure to lead. There is no cure for lead poisoning, however, there are medications available which can reduce/remove lead from the bloodstream.
How can I prevent lead exposure?
The good news is, that is possible to prevent lead exposure for your family. If you live in an older home (built pre-1978), you can check with your local health department about any lead that might be in the paint or drinking water or household dust. Usually the sources of lead exposure (paint, pipes) can be removed from the home, but this work needs to be carried out by trained professionals.
You can also monitor the Consumer Product Safety Commission website for any recalls relating to lead in toys or jewelry.
Lastly, if you work in a job where you are exposed to lead you should change your clothes and shoes before you enter your home. You should also make sure your clothes are washed separately to the rest of the household.
How can I test myself or my child for lead exposure?
You can use a simple blood test to determine if you, or your child has been exposed to lead. It is important that in taking the sample, you ensure it is not contaminated with lead. In the US, all children enrolled in Medicaid receive blood lead screening between 12 and 24 months old. In addition, children who are between 24 and 72 months old, with no record of a blood lead test must receive one.
If you are worried about lead exposure yourself, or are concerned about displaying signs or symptoms of lead exposure, you should talk to your Primary Care Physician.
Written by Gwen Murphy, PhD, MPH | Edited by Dr. Susan O' Sullivan