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Lead

What is lead?

Lead is a naturally occurring metal element found in small amounts in the earth’s crust. Lead can be found in all parts of our environment – the air, soil, water, and even inside our homes. Much of our exposure comes from the past use of lead-based paint, leaded gasoline, and industrial mining, smelting, and refining. While it has some beneficial uses, such as the production of batteries, ammunition, and devices to shield x-rays, it can be toxic to people.

How can I be exposed to lead?

Lead-based paint and lead contaminated dust are the main sources of lead poisoning. All houses built before 1978 are likely to contain some lead-based paint. When the old paint deteriorates and gets mixed in with the dust, it can be inhaled or eaten.

Other sources include contaminated soil, drinking water, children’s toys and jewelry, workplace and hobby hazards, imported candy, and traditional home remedies and cosmetics. Learn more about the common sources of lead.

Who is at risk of lead poisoning?

Children

Lead is dangerous for children because their growing bodies absorb more lead than adults do. Their brains and nervous systems are more sensitive to the damaging effects of lead. Babies and young children often put their hands and other objects, which may be contaminated with lead dust, into their mouths. Children may also be exposed to lead by eating and drinking food or water containing lead, using dishes or glasses that contain lead, inhaling lead dust from lead-based paint or lead-contaminated soil, or from playing with toys that contain lead paint.

Childen in low-income families and that live in older housing are at the greatest risk for exposure to lead. Children who are members of racial-ethnic minority groups, recent immigrants, and those who have a parent exposed to lead at work are at higher risk of lead exposure than other children.

Adults, Including Pregnant Women

Adults may be exposed to lead by eating and drinking food or water containing lead or from using 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. Working in a job or engaging in hobbies where lead is used, such as making stained glass, can increase exposure. A pregnant woman’s exposure to lead from these sources is of particular concern because it can result in exposure to her developing baby. See CDC’s lead and pregnant women.

What are the health effects of lead?

Lead can affect almost every organ and system in your body. Children six years old and younger are the most susceptible to the effects of lead. There may be no obvious symptoms. People exposed to and affected by lead may not act or look sick. Sometimes the vague symptoms may be mistaken for other illnesses such as an upset stomach or flu. A blood test is the only way to find out if someone has lead poisoning.

Children

In children, lead toxicity mainly targets the nervous system. Even very low levels of lead in the blood of children can result in:

  • Permanent damage to the brain and nervous system, leading to behavior and learning problems, lower IQ, and hearing problems.
  • Slowed growth.
  • Anemia.

 In rare cases, ingestion of lead can cause seizures, coma, and even death.

Pregnant Women

Lead can accumulate in our bodies over time, where it is stored in bones along with calcium. During pregnancy, lead is released from bones as maternal calcium and is used to help form the bones of the baby – this is especially true if a woman does not have enough dietary calcium. Lead can also be circulated from the mother’s blood stream through the placenta to the baby. Lead in a pregnant woman’s body can result in serious effects on the pregnancy and her developing baby, including miscarriage, reduced growth of the baby, and premature birth. Lead can also be transmitted through breast milk. 

Adults

Adults exposed to lead can suffer from:

  • Nervous system effects.
  • Heart and circulatory system effects – increased blood pressure, incidence of hypertension.
  • Decreased kidney function.
  • Reproductive problems (in both men and women).

Is there a test that shows lead poisoning?

A blood test is available to measure the amount of lead in your blood and to estimate the amount of your recent exposure to lead. Blood tests are commonly used to screen children for lead poisoning. Learn more about testing children for lead poisoning.

How do you prevent exposure to lead?

You can lower the chances of exposure to lead in your home by taking these steps:

  • Watch out for lead paint in homes built before 1978. Inspect and maintain all painted surfaces. When old paint cracks and peels, it makes dangerous dust.
  • 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.
  • Remodel, repair, and paint old homes safely – sanding or scraping paint can create dangerous lead dust. Make sure your contractor is Lead-Safe Certified. Learn more about EPA’s lead renovation, repair, and painting rules.
  • Wash children's hands, bottles, pacifiers, stuffed animals, and toys often.
  • Use cold water to prepare food and drinks. Run or flush water that has been standing overnight before drinking or cooking with it. Clean debris out of outlet screens or faucet aerators regularly. Learn more about lead in drinking water.
  • Eat well-balanced meals. Foods with calcium, iron, and vitamin C are important. Children with healthy diets absorb less lead. See EPA’s Fight Lead Poisoning with a Healthy Diet (PDF).
  • Remove shoes and wash hands after working or playing outdoors to avoid bringing in soil that may contain lead.
  • If you’re exposed to lead at work, don’t bring it home. Use separate work clothes and shoes. Shower before coming home or as soon as you get home. Put dirty work clothes in plastic bag and wash them separately from other family member clothes.
  • If you have a hobby that exposes you to lead, don’t contaminate your home. Keep children and pregnant women out of hobby work areas.
  • Pay attention to toy and jewelry product recalls due to lead. See CPSC’s product recalls.
  • Avoid using home remedies and cosmetics that contain lead.
  • Avoid using imported pottery, dishware, and ceramics for food and drinks if you don’t know whether or not it contains lead. 

Learn more about preventing lead exposure from common sources of lead.

What lead notification laws do landlords and homesellers have to follow?

Homebuyers and renters of housing built before 1978 must receive an EPA-approved pamphlet about protecting themselves from lead, any known lead inspections on the property, and a lead disclosure form attached to the lease or sale contract. Property managers, landlords, real estate agents, and homesellers must follow these lead notification rules. Get the EPA-approved pamphlet, lead disclosure form, and more information about the real estate disclosure requirements for lead.

Lead and Baby Photo Callout
Lead poisoning in children can cause slowed growth, anemia, and permanent damage to the brain and nervous system. Identifying potential sources of lead can help you protect your child.