Lead Poisoning

Overview

What is lead?

Lead is a poisonous metal that is especially dangerous to babies and young children, and can harm them even before they are born. Lead poisoning can damage children’s nervous systems, brains and other organs. It can also lead to additional health, learning and behavioral problems.

Where is lead found?

Lead is most often found in lead-based paint; in dust that is formed when lead-based paint is scraped, sanded or worn down through use, and; in soil that becomes contaminated with peeling, lead-based paint. Lead can also be found in:

  • Water
  • Leaded crystal glassware
  • Lead-glazed pottery and ceramic ware
  • Some hobby equipment
  • Cosmetics, such as kohl
  • Home remedies such as "greta," a Mexican folk remedy (taken commonly for stomachache or intestinal illness) and "azarcon" (a folk remedy that usually contains substantial amounts of lead).
  • Painted toys and furniture, especially if they are older, may contain lead.

Symptoms and Causes

How do children get lead poisoning?

Children mainly get lead poisoning by swallowing and/or absorbing lead-based paint used in houses that were built before 1978. Lead paint gets into children’s systems when they:

  • Eat or handle peeling paint chips and flakes that contain lead.
  • Put their hands, toys and other items covered with lead dust in their mouths.
  • Breathe lead dust.
  • Chew on windowsills, furniture and door frames and other items covered with lead-based paint.
  • Drink water from older water pipes that may leach lead.

What are the symptoms of lead poisoning?

In many cases, children who have lead poisoning have no symptoms. Even healthy-looking children can have high levels of lead in their bodies. Symptoms of lead poisoning in children include:

  • Cramps
  • Hyperactivity (restless, fidgets, talks too much)
  • Learning problems
  • Changes in behavior
  • Headaches
  • Vomiting
  • Fatigue
  • Anemia (not enough hemoglobin in the person's blood)

Diagnosis and Tests

What should I do if I think my child might have lead poisoning?

Be sure to take your child for a blood test to measure his or her blood lead levels. Every child should have this quick and easy test done at 9 months to 1 year of age, especially if he or she is at risk for lead exposure or lives in a high-risk area. The test can be done at your doctor’s office or at your local health department. Many health insurers cover the cost of this test, and children who are covered by Medicaid are eligible for free screening and are required by Ohio law to obtain a lead screen.

Management and Treatment

Can lead poisoning be treated?

Yes. If your child’s blood lead levels are too high, your doctor can start medical treatment to remove the lead. Studies have shown that lowering the blood lead levels in a child’s body through treatment may increase the child’s IQ level.

Prevention

What can I do to reduce my child’s exposure to lead?

  • Make sure that your child eats healthy foods that are high in iron, calcium and vitamin C, which help protect against lead poisoning.
  • If you live in a house or apartment built before 1978, talk to your state or local health department about having your home’s paint and dust tested for lead. You can also call 1.800.424.LEAD (5323) for more information.
  • If you rent your home, talk to your landlord about peeling and flaking paint. Call the health department if the paint is not safely repaired.
  • Wash your child’s hands, bottles, pacifiers and toys frequently.
  • Always wash your hands before eating.
  • Always wipe your feet before entering the house.
  • Wipe floors and other surfaces with a damp mop or cloth on a regular basis.
  • Let tap water run for one minute before using.
  • Because hot tap water is more likely to contain higher levels of lead, use only cold tap water for drinking, cooking and for making baby formula.
  • Don’t try to remove lead-based paint yourself.
  • Avoid any home remedies that contain lead.

Should I be concerned about lead poisoning if I’m pregnant?

Pregnant women should make sure to avoid exposure to lead, since it can be passed along to the unborn child through the mother. A child can be harmed by lead poisoning even before he or she is born.

Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 01/28/2019.

References

  • World Health Organization. . Accessed 1/29/2019.Lead poisoning and health (https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/lead-poisoning-and-health)
  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. . Accessed 1/29/2019. Prevent Children’s Exposure to Lead (https://www.cdc.gov/nceh/lead/parents.htm)
  • Lab Tests Online. . Accessed 1/29/2019. Lead Poisoning (https://labtestsonline.org/conditions/lead-poisoning)
  • Merck Manual Consumer Version. . Accessed 1/29/2019.Lead Poisoning (Plumbism) (https://www.merckmanuals.com/home/injuries-and-poisoning/poisoning/lead-poisoning)

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