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Quick Facts

Lead Poisoning

By The Manual's Editorial Staff,

Lead is a metal that's found in things like some water pipes, old paint (from before 1978 in the United States), some pottery glazes, bullets, and some kinds of batteries.

"Lead" pencils don't contain lead and aren't poisonous. Car gasoline no longer contains lead. That's why gas is called "unleaded."

What is lead poisoning?

Lead poisoning develops slowly as lead builds up in your body.

  • Lead poisoning mainly affects your brain

  • Babies and young children are in the most danger because their brains are still developing

  • Lead poisoning can cause lifelong problems with a child's thinking and learning

  • In an older home, repair chipping paint and keep surfaces clean so children don't eat or breathe in lead paint dust

  • If you or your children may be exposed to lead, ask your doctor about getting a blood test

Children living in old houses that may have lead paint (built before 1978) should be tested for lead poisoning, even if they don’t have any symptoms.

Call your local health department or the United States poison control center at 1-800-222-1222 for advice. The World Health Organization lists poison centers outside the United States.

How do you get lead poisoning?

You can get lead poisoning from:

  • Paint dust or paint chips from old paint that contains lead

  • Working in a factory that handles lead

  • Having water that comes through pipes made of lead

  • Using ceramic pitchers, cups, or plates made with a glaze that contains lead

Young children may put paint chips in their mouth. Dust from old paint can get all over your house. Anyone can touch surfaces with paint dust and get the dust in their mouth or on their food. Even though you might not have enough dust to see, it can still affect you over time.

Many cities still have lead pipes to bring water from the street into houses. Water pipes inside houses aren't made of lead. If your water comes to your house from lead pipes and the water has more acid than normal, the acid can dissolve lead from the pipe and put it in your water.

Acidic foods and drinks (such as tomatoes and orange juice) can dissolve lead from the glaze on certain pottery. Pottery made in the United States doesn't contain lead. Pottery made outside the United States may have lead.

Bullets contain lead. If you have a bullet inside you from being shot, the amount of lead is usually too low to cause poisoning.

What are the symptoms of lead poisoning?

Symptoms depend on how much lead is in your body and how quickly it built up. Many people with mild lead poisoning have no symptoms. Symptoms usually start slowly, over a period of several weeks or longer.

Children

Children show these symptoms first:

  • Shorter attention span

  • Less playful than usual

  • Crankiness

With more severe lead poisoning, children show signs of brain damage. They may have symptoms like:

  • Throwing up

  • Clumsiness and trouble walking

  • Sleepiness and confusion

With severe poisoning, children will have seizures (convulsions) and go into a coma.

Over time, children who aren't treated for lead poisoning may have:

  • Low intelligence, difficulty learning, and aggressive behavior

  • Seizures

  • Long-lasting belly pain

  • Anemia (low number of red blood cells)

Adults

Adults with lead poisoning may have:

  • Changes in personality, mood, or behavior

  • Headaches

  • Numbness, weakness, and trouble walking

  • A metal taste in the mouth

  • Belly pain, throwing up, and constipation

  • Anemia

How can doctors tell if I have lead poisoning?

Doctors suspect lead poisoning based on your symptoms. They'll test the level of lead in your blood.

If you think you might have lead poisoning, ask to have your blood checked.

How do doctors treat lead poisoning?

Doctors will:

  • Give you a medicine that binds with the lead and lets it pass out of your body in your urine

With mild poisoning, you'll take the medicine by mouth. With more severe poisoning, you'll get the medicine by vein (IV). Medicines that get rid of the lead can also get rid of important minerals. You may need to take supplements to replace these minerals.

Even with treatment, children can have long-lasting brain or kidney damage.

How can I prevent lead poisoning?

If your water could be coming through lead pipes:

  • Buy a kit to test for lead in your water

  • Use a filter to remove most of the lead from your drinking water

If your house might have lead paint:

  • Remove chipping or peeling paint right away

  • Wash children’s toys or pacifiers regularly

  • Clean regularly and dust windowsills weekly with a wet cloth

  • Have a professional do any remodeling, so you don’t breathe in lead dust

If you work with lead at your job:

  • Wear protective gear

  • Change your clothes and shoes before going home

  • Shower before going to bed