Lead poisoning occurs when too much lead accumulates in the body.
Lead is a metallic element that can be absorbed by the body, primarily through the lungs and stomach. Generally, lead poisoning occurs slowly, resulting from the gradual accumulation of lead in bone and tissue after repeated exposure.
It is important to note that young children absorb lead far more easily and rapidly than adults. The developing nervous systems of young children are more susceptible to the adverse effects of lead. Unborn babies are also susceptible to the adverse effects of lead, as it crosses the placenta during pregnancy.
However, lead poisoning can affect nearly every system in the body. It can cause learning disabilities, behavioral problems and at very high levels, seizures, coma and even death.
Lead is listed as a known carcinogen (a cancer causing substance) in the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Toxic Release Inventory.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has determined that nearly 310,000 children in the U.S. between the ages of 1 and 5 years still have elevated blood lead levels.
Between January 2005 and December 2006, 15 children tested with elevated blood lead levels in Clark County; 13 of the 15 cases occurred in children age 6 or younger.
How can a person get exposed?
Sources of Lead
In the past lead was widely used in such things as household paint, gasoline, pipes and pesticides. The use of lead has been restricted in these and many other products, but a person may still become exposed to lead from a variety of sources. The following is a list of common lead sources:
Paint chips from interior and exterior paint in homes built before 1978
Soil, especially in dense urban areas and playgrounds
Household dust, and debris from older building renovation
Contaminated drinking water due to leaching in homes with lead pipes, lead solder, brass fixtures, and/or brass valves
Traditional home remedies, such as Greta and Azarcon, an orange powder used to treat upset stomach (empacho) in the Hispanic culture, Ghasard used as a tonic in Indian folk remedy, and Ba-baw-san, a Chinese herbal remedy used to treat colic pain or to pacify young children
Pottery and ceramics
Work and hobby activities, such as construction, remodeling, radiator repair, pottery making, or the use of an indoor firing range
Visit the Resources webpage for information on products recalled due to lead contamination.
Routes of Entry
Lead is usually introduced into the body through ingestion or inhalation. A person typically eats foods or puts other items contaminated with lead into his mouth or breathes in dust or fumes containing lead.
Who is affected the most?
Children under the age of 6 years are at greater risk of elevated blood lead levels because of normal hand to mouth activity in areas or with items potentially contaminated with lead.
Additionally, because certain parts of their nervous system are in the early stages of development, they are more susceptible to the toxic effects of lead.
What are the symptoms?
Symptoms in children and adults are generally not the same. Table 1 is a comparison of lead poisoning symptoms as seen in children and adults. Many adults and children may not have any noticeable symptoms of lead poisoning.
Table 1. Symptoms of Lead Poisoning
High blood pressure
Wrist or foot weakness
Can a person suffering from lead poisoning transmit this ailment to another person?
No. Lead is not passed person-to-person.
What is the treatment?
Some doctors stress the importance of a sensible diet to aid in the reduction of lead in the body.
Most doctors familiar with lead poisoning prescribe chelation therapy if blood lead levels become excessively high, to help extract lead from the soft tissue and flush it from the body.
Chelation therapy uses agents to bind to lead stored in the bones and organs. The agent and bound lead are disposed of through normal elimination. Consult your doctor for further information and methods of treatment.
What health effects are associated with lead poisoning?
Table 2 shows some health effects resulting from lead poisoning.
Table 2. Health Effects of Lead Poisoning
Hypertension (high blood
Damage to kidneys, nervous system and brain
complications (e.g., infertility
in males; miscarriages in
Loss of visual and
Slowed or stunted growth
How can lead poisoning risk be reduced or prevented?
Do not eat imported goods that are suspected of containing lead.
If lead paint has been found in your house, eliminate contaminated dust by using a solution of TSP (tri-sodium phosphate) and water.
Damp mop floors and clean other surfaces with a cloth or sponge that will not be re-used on dishes, eating, drinking or cooking utensils.
Block painted window sills and moldings with heavy furniture to keep children away.
Install vinyl siding over exterior lead painted surfaces.
Plant grass to control dust.
Reduce children’s contact with soil if your house was built before 1978 or is near a major highway.
Plant bushes near exterior walls to keep children away.
Test your water for lead content and assure that it is within recommended limits.
Run tap water for 60 seconds before using it whenever the water may have been standing awhile.
Use cold tap water for drinking, cooking and making infant formula because it carries less lead. (Boiling the water concentrates the lead.)
Check pottery, china and leaded glassware for lead content.
What should I do if I, or someone I know, begin to show symptoms?
Seek the advice of a doctor.
Where should I go for screenings, periodic monitoring and treatment?