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Lead Poisoning

What is lead?

Lead is a soft, heavy, toxic metal.  It is found in many products we use every day—sometimes even in toys.  It’s also in the paint in many houses and in some dirt and dust.

What is lead poisoning? 

Lead poisoning means having lead—a strong poison—in the body in an amount that can cause serious health and development problems.  

Lead poisoning most often builds up slowly over time, due to repeated contact with small amounts of lead.  But swallowing a lead object, such as toy jewelry, that contains lead can cause acute lead poisoning, and even death.

Lead is a neurotoxin.  It is much more dangerous for children than adults because it affects kids’ developing brains and nervous systems. The younger the child, the more harm lead can cause.

Lead can cause serious health effects: 

Very high levels may cause vomiting, stumbling, muscle weakness, seizures or comaAbdominal pain (stomach ache) and cramping is usually the first sign of a high, toxic dose of lead poison.

At lower levels, subtle changes can happen in brain function.  The child may appear healthy and normal, or may have symptoms like:

The only way to know for sure if your child has lead poisoning is to have the blood test.

How common is lead poisoning?

Lead poisoning is common.  About one in 20 preschoolers have high levels of lead in their blood.

What causes lead poisoning?  What are some possible sources of exposure?

Children can be exposed to lead in many ways.  Kids can take in lead by mouth or through breathing lead dust.  They can get dust and paint chips on their hands and then put their hands in their mouths. 

Water that comes from pipes with lead soldering can contain lead, too.  Some pottery and ceramic dishes, home remedies, vending machine trinkets, and costume jewelry contain lead.  Even many new, imported toys contain lead paint.  There are many common sources of lead exposure

Learn about all the likely sources of exposure so you will know whether your child might be at risk.  If you have questions, ask your doctor. 

Some potential sources of exposure are:

How is lead exposure measured?

Kids are screened for lead by having their blood tested.  Blood levels are measured in micrograms per deciliter (µg/dL).  10 µg/dL or higher is considered “lead poisoning.”

What about lower levels of lead?

Recent studies show that even low levels of lead are harmful and are associated with lower IQ [1, 2, 3], impaired growth and development, and impaired hearing [4]. Experts cannot yet say that there is a level at which there is no risk. The CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) has not changed the blood lead level of concern downward from 10 µg/dL (ten micrograms per deciliter) for a number of reasons. However, not all experts agree with the CDC’s position. 

Especially if your child is aged six months to three years, talk to your pediatrician about lead and whether your child might be at risk.

How do I know if I should have my child tested?

In Michigan, if your child is Medicaid-enrolled, they must be tested for lead poisoning.

If you have lead in your paint, dust or soil, or live in a pre-1978 home, talk to your pediatrician or health department about lead screening (testing), even if your child seems healthy.  Children are most at risk from ages six months to three years, so this is the age range during which it is especially important to talk to your pediatrician about testing.  Kids remain at risk up to age six, according to the CDC, since they are growing fast, and tend to put their hands in their mouths.

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends testing at one and two years of age. Usually, levels peak at age two. According to the AAP, special risk groups include foster children, immigrant and refugee children, foreign-born adopted children, and kids whose parents work with lead or lead dust at their job or in their hobby, and those who live in, visit, or work on old houses [5].  A simple blood test can tell you how much lead is in your child’s system. 

How can I tell if my house has lead in or around it?

Paint made before 1978 often had lead in it.  Most houses built before 1978 have some lead-based paint in or on them somewhere.  The older the house, the greater the risk.  The risk becomes greater if the paint is deteriorating or if the house is being remodeled.  Completely intact lead paint is usually not a health hazard—unless it’s somewhere your child may chew on it (such as a window sill or painted toy). 

To get an indication of whether paint or dust in your house contains lead, you can go to your local hardware store and get a kit to test for lead or you can order a lead dust test kit.  Note:  The EPA states, “Home test kits for lead are available, but studies suggest that they are not always accurate.  Consumers should not rely on these tests before doing renovations or to assure safety” [6]. You can also hire a lead professional to assess the lead content of your paint, dust and soil and estimate the risks involved. 

What if my house has lead paint?

If your lead paint is deteriorating, or if you are remodeling, the risk is greatest.  Also, when the weather is warm, the risk goes up, since windows and doors are opened more.  Find out more about lead abatement by exploring the many links and resources on this page or by calling your health department.  It’s probably best to find a qualified lead abatement professional to perform this kind of work. Find out more about what to expect from professional lead services. Removing lead paint yourself can never be completely safe, according to the Consumer Products Safety Commission.   If you remodel, your contractor will need to take extra precautions to keep your family safe from the lead dust that will result from demolition. 

What can I do to protect my child?

Lead poisoning is very preventable.  There is a lot you can do to reduce your child’s lead exposure and absorption. 

Can lead affect my baby when I’m pregnant or breastfeeding?

In pregnancy, a new exposure to lead can expose the fetus.  Lead in the blood can cross the placenta.  Even lead stored in bones can be mobilized and expose the woman and fetus.  Lead poisoning of the fetus can cause low birth weight, stillbirth or miscarriage.

To protect your baby, get enough calcium, and eat a well-balanced diet.  Eat small amounts often, to keep food in the stomach.  Follow the other advice on this page for cleaning lead dust in older houses and avoiding products and situations that might expose you to lead.  Breastfeeding mothers need to get lots of calcium—1200 mg per day.

Where can I find out more?



Written and compiled by Kyla Boyse, R.N.  Reviewed by Sharon Swindell, M.D., M.P.H.

Updated October 2009

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