Lead poisoning is a common preventable disease. Most commonly, lead poisoning is caused by being repeatedly exposed to small amounts of lead. Once lead is in the body it does not leave on its own. If enough lead builds up in the body it causes lead poisoning.
There may not be any obvious symptoms at first, so parents of children with mild lead poisoning may not know to get medical help. Low levels of lead are harmful. The brain is most sensitive to lead exposure during the first 6 years of life. Exposure to lead may cause such problems as lowered IQ scores, decreased attention span, decreased hearing, speech delays, and other developmental delays.
Though uncommon, exposure to large amounts of lead causes severe lead poisoning and major symptoms. The symptoms of severe lead poisoning include abdominal pains, headaches, vomiting, confusion, muscle weakness, seizures, hair loss, and anemia.
The most common source of lead exposure for children is lead-based paint. Lead was banned from house paint in 1978. Three-quarters of all houses built before 1960 contained lead-based paint. When paint chips or peels, young children can pick up these chips and chew them. More commonly, children swallow dust and soil contaminated with lead paint. Home remodeling and sanding put a great deal of lead powder into dust and soil. Because toddlers commonly put their hands in their mouths, suck their thumbs, and explore their environment by tasting things, they are at greater risk for lead poisoning.
Other sources of lead are air, water, and food. The amount of lead in the air from car exhaust has been markedly reduced now that unleaded gasoline is commonly used.
Lead is found in low levels in some drinking water because lead-based solder on old water pipes or lead lining the pipes may add lead to water. Some water departments add a chemical to the water supply to coat the inside of pipes. This can reduce the amount of lead flowing through. But water that sits in the pipes when you’re not using it may still absorb some lead if it's present in your pipes.
Lead is also sometimes found in fruit juice, glazed pottery, low-quality toys, metal trinkets, cosmetics, and crayons. Average lead levels in children in the U.S. have been declining in recent years.
Lead poisoning is diagnosed by a blood test. In most states only children who are at high risk for lead poisoning are tested. For high risk children this test is done when children are 12 months old and repeated when they are 2 years old. You should have your child tested if:
Your local water department may publish information about lead content testing online.
Children who remain at high risk for lead exposure should be tested for lead at least every year until their 6th birthday. The levels of lead when a child is 12 months old and 24 months old are especially important.
Children with very high levels of lead in their blood or symptoms of lead poisoning need to start taking a medicine (called a chelating agent) that binds with the lead and carries it out of the body. Any child with higher than normal levels of lead should have blood levels checked every one to three months.
All children need to be protected from re-exposure to the lead until it is removed. A public health agency or housing agency should carefully inspect the child's home for lead hazards. Your family should take all of the precautions for preventing lead exposure.