Lead poisoning occurs when lead builds up in the body, often over a period of months or years. Even small amounts of lead can cause serious health problems. Children under the age of 6 are especially vulnerable to lead poisoning, which can severely affect mental and physical development. At very high levels, lead poisoning can be fatal.
Lead-based paint and lead-contaminated dust in older buildings are the most common sources of lead poisoning in children. Other sources include contaminated air, water and soil. Adults who work with batteries, home renovations or in auto repair shops also may be exposed to lead.
While treatment is available for lead poisoning, some simple precautions can help prevent it.
Initially, lead poisoning can be hard to detect — even people who seem healthy can have high blood levels of lead. Signs and symptoms usually don't appear until dangerous amounts have accumulated.
Symptoms in children
Symptoms in newborns
Symptoms in adults
Lead is a metal that occurs naturally in the earth's crust, but human activity — mining, burning fossil fuels and manufacturing — has caused it to become more widespread. Lead was also once a key ingredient in paint and gasoline and is still used in batteries, solder, pipes, pottery, roofing materials and some cosmetics.
Lead in paint
Water pipes and imported canned goods
Other sources of lead exposure
Factors that may increase your risk of lead poisoning include:
Because lead can harm an unborn child, pregnant women or women likely to become pregnant should be especially careful to avoid exposure to lead.
Exposure to even low levels of lead can cause damage over time, especially in children. The greatest risk is to brain development, where irreversible damage may occur. Higher levels can damage the kidneys and nervous system in both children and adults. Very high lead levels may cause seizures, unconsciousness and possibly death.
Preparing for your appointment
If you think you or your child has been exposed to lead, see your doctor or contact your local public health department. A simple test can help determine blood lead levels.
What you can do
What to expect from your doctor
Tests and diagnosis
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that states test children for lead poisoning at ages 1 and 2. The CDC also recommends testing for children ages 3 to 6 if they:
Doctors usually use a simple blood test to detect lead poisoning. A small blood sample is taken from a finger prick or from a vein. Lead levels in the blood are measured in micrograms per deciliter (mcg/dL). An unsafe level is 10 mcg/dL or higher.
Treatments and drugs
The first step in treating all degrees of lead poisoning is to remove the source of the contamination. If you can't remove lead from your environment, you may at least be able to reduce the likelihood that it will cause problems. For instance, sometimes it might be better to seal in, rather than remove, old lead paint. Your local health department can recommend ways to identify and reduce lead in your home and community.
For children and adults with relatively low lead levels, simply avoiding exposure to lead may be enough to reduce blood lead levels.
Treating higher levels
You can take some simple measures to help protect you and your family from lead poisoning. These may include:
Last Updated: 2011-03-12
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