Who is at risk of lead exposure?
Children are particularly at risk of lead exposure because they are growing so rapidly and because they tend to put their hands or other objects, which may be contaminated with lead-contaminated dust or soil, into their mouths. Children living in or spending significant time in homes or buildings built before 1978 may be at higher risk of exposure.
Adults may be exposed to lead by eating and drinking food or water containing lead or from dishes or glasses that contain lead. They may also breathe lead dust by spending time in areas where lead-based paint is deteriorating, and during renovation or repair work that disturbs painted surfaces in older homes and buildings. Painted surfaces on windows and other areas subject to frequent movement and wear are common sites where lead dust may accumulate. Working in a job or engaging in hobbies where lead is used, such as making stained glass, can increase exposure, as can certain folk remedies containing lead.
Military members should take extra precaution when working at firing ranges or in close proximity to sustained weapons fire. A pregnant woman's exposure to lead from these sources is of particular concern because it can result in exposure to her developing baby.
Children and Lead Exposure
Protecting children from exposure to lead is important to lifelong good health. No safe blood lead level in children has been identified. Even low levels of lead in blood have been shown to affect IQ, ability to pay attention, and academic achievement. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends public health action be initiated when blood lead levels are above 5 micrograms per deciliter (µg/dL).
The adverse effects of lead exposure cannot be corrected once they occur. The goal is to prevent lead exposure to children before they are harmed.
How are children exposed to lead?
Lead is invisible to the naked eye and has no smell. Children may be exposed to lead from sources such as paint, solder, and consumer products, and through pathways such as air, food, water, dust, and soil.
Lead-contaminated paint and lead-contaminated dust are the most hazardous sources of lead for U.S. children. Leaded paints were banned for use in housing in 1978. All houses built before 1978 are likely to contain some lead-contaminated paint. However, it is the deterioration of this paint that causes a problem.
The CDC lists other potential sources of lead, including:
What are the Health Effects of Lead in Children?
Lead can affect almost every organ and system in the body. Even low levels of lead in the blood of children can result in:
- Behavior and learning problems
- Lower IQ and hyperactivity
- Slowed growth
- Hearing problems
- In rare cases, ingestion of lead can cause seizures, coma, and even death
What if you think your child has been in contact with lead?
A blood lead test is the only way to find out if your child has a high lead level. Most children with high levels of lead in their blood have no symptoms.
Your healthcare provider can help you determine if your child is at risk of exposure to lead. For children at high risk, a blood lead test can help determine the level of exposure.
If you think your child has been in contact with lead, contact your child's health care provider to determine whether blood lead testing should be done.
Your child's health care provider can recommend treatment if your child has been exposed to lead.
Adults and Lead Exposure
Lead is also harmful to adults. Adults exposed to lead can suffer from:
- Cardiovascular effects, increased blood pressure and hypertension
- Decreased kidney function
- Reproductive problems in both men and women
What if you are pregnant or nursing?
Lead can accumulate in our bodies over time, where it is stored in bones along with calcium. During pregnancy, lead is released from the mother's bones along with calcium and can pass from the mother to the developing baby or the breastfeeding infant. This can result in serious effects to the developing baby and infant, including:
Damage to the baby’s brain, kidneys, and nervous system
Increased likelihood of learning or behavioral problems
Increased risk for miscarriage
- If you are pregnant or nursing, talk to your healthcare provider about potential exposure to sources of lead. See the CDC's page on lead poisoning prevention for
Protect Your Family from Lead Exposures
There are a number of ways to make your home lead-safe and reduce your child's exposure to lead. It is important to determine the construction year of the house or the dwelling where you and your child spend a large amount of time (e.g., grandparents or daycare). In housing built before 1978, assume that the paint is lead-contaminated unless tests show otherwise. Lead hazards in a child's environment must be identified and controlled or removed safely.
Reduce the Risk
- Make sure your child does not have access to peeling paint or painted chewable surfaces.
- Wash children's hands, bottles, pacifiers and toys often.
- Teach children to wipe and remove their shoes and wash hands after playing outdoors.
- Prevent children from playing in bare soil. If possible, provide them with sandboxes.
- Read the information on potential lead hazards that was given to you when you moved to your current residence.
- Inspect and maintain all painted surfaces to prevent paint deterioration. Repair or report chipping, flaking, deteriorating paint.
- Address water damage quickly and completely.
- Keep your home clean and dust-free. Clean around painted areas where friction can generate dust, such as doors, windows, and drawers. Wipe these areas with a wet sponge or rag to remove paint chips or dust.
- Flush faucets/water outlets by allowing cold water to run for 1-2 minutes before using for drinking or food preparation.
- Clean debris out of outlet screens or faucet aerators on a regular basis.
- Find out if hobbies or jobs have potential lead hazards and keep children away from your work areas.
- Create barriers between living/play areas and lead sources.
- Take off shoes when entering the house to prevent bringing lead-contaminated soil in from outside.
- Shower and change clothes after finishing a task that involves working with lead-based products such as stained glass, making bullets, or using a firing range/firing a weapon. Wash these clothes separately from other laundry.
- Install an ANSI/NSF Standard 53 certified faucet-mounted filter on faucets used to prepare food and drinks. The NSF provides a
certified product listing
- Use only cold water to prepare food and drinks.
- Ensure that your family members eat well-balanced meals rich in iron, calcium, and Vitamin C. Children with healthy diets absorb less lead. The EPA provides tips on how to
Fight Lead Poisoning with a Healthy Diet
- Avoid using traditional folk medicine and cosmetics that may contain lead.
- Avoid eating candies imported from Mexico.
- Avoid using containers, cookware, or tableware that are not shown to be lead-free to store or cook foods or liquids.
Determine if your family is at risk for lead exposure with the
Lead Poisoning Home Checklist (PDF)
Information for Occupants of Army Family Housing
Lead-contaminated paint, including lead-based paint, that is not disturbed and remains intact is not a hazard. It is only when lead-contaminated paint deteriorates releasing chips and contaminating surface dust and soil that it becomes a significant hazard. The Army presumes that any paint in pre-1978 housing is lead-contaminated.
For additional information, contact your local clinic or Military Treatment Facility preventive medicine department or the Directorate of Public Works environmental division.
Lead information for Healthcare Providers, click here.
If you have unresolved concerns about housing and related health issues please call the
Housing Environment Health ResponseRegistry at 1-800-984-8523