Lead Poisoning

Lead Poisoning

Lead is a soft, bluish-white metal that exists naturally in the environment. When lead combines with other chemical elements, it creates compounds, or chemical mixtures. When people come in contact with lead in the environment, it is often with compounds.

In the past, lead was used often in products such as house paint, pesticides (chemicals that kill pests), and gasoline. In the 1970s, science clearly showed that lead is highly toxic to people — especially children. The government passed laws that limit the use of lead, but it still lingers in the environment.

Where is lead found?

Most homes built before 1960s, as well as some built in the 1970s, have lead paint in them. Peeling paint chips and dust in these homes may contain lead. Additionally, some older homes may have plumbing pipes with lead in them. If these pipes are still in use, lead can get into the water.

Lead can also be found in:

  • Ceramic glazes (glazes for pottery)
  • Fishing sinkers (used to help fishing hooks go underwater)
  • Leaded crystal glassware
  • Some toys and jewelry

Image courtesy of the previously available "Know Lead" website.

House with labels of where lead might be located like chipping and peeling paint from old sinks and tubs, pipes and solder joints, remodeling debris & dust, hobby and craft supplies, flaking paints, food served or stored in lead glazed pottery.

How are people exposed to lead?

Lead can get into your body if you breathe in dust from lead paint, or if you drink water with lead in it from old plumbing pipes. Children and babies may also come in contact with lead by:

  • Eating paint chips or soil that contains lead
  • Playing with toys that have lead in them
  • Sucking on their fingers after playing in the dirt or dust

The good news about lead poisoning is that it’s 100% preventable. That means we can keep it from happening by preventing exposure to lead in the first place.

How can lead affect my health?

Lead harms many systems in the body — especially the central nervous system (the system that includes the brain and spinal chord). It’s most dangerous for children because their nervous systems are still developing. Repeated exposure to low levels of lead can affect children’s growth, and cause learning or behavior problems.

If a child swallows a lot of lead, it can seriously damage the brain, and may even cause death. Lead poisoning can also cause:

  • Anemia (when your blood doesn’t carry enough oxygen to the rest of your body)
  • Colic (crying in a baby that lasts longer than 3 hours a day and isn’t caused by a medical problem)
  • Damage to the kidneys
  • Muscle weakness

Lead may also hurt an unborn baby if a woman is exposed while she’s pregnant.

Symptoms of Lead Poisoning

Lead poisoning causes many problems
  • abdominal pain, nausea or vomiting
  • behavioral problems or irritability
  • constipation
  • difficulty concentrating
  • excessive tiredness or lethargy
  • headaches
  • loss of appetite
  • metallic taste in the mouth
  • muscle and joint weakness or pain

These symptoms may or may not be present, and of course each of them can also be caused by many other common illnesses. But in cases where some of these symptoms are present for a long time, no other cause has been found, and there may have been some exposure to lead, then tests for test poisoning should be considered.

Research helps!

Lead poison research is performed here at the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS), and through the National Toxicology Program and other faculties and programs. Here are some of the NIEHS resources on the subject:

Other Resources

Some content courtesy of the National Library of Medicine.

an atom
Other stuff you might like ...
Science & Scientists
What is science and who are scientists?
What's That Word
Scientific Dictionary
Not sure of what a word means?
Find Out!
an open book with the letter a over it
For Kids
Did you know if your home was built before 1978 it may contain lead-based paint?
For parents
Protecting children's health is a vital public health goal. Children are particularly vulnerable to the health effects of environmental contaminants. For more information, see Children's Health.
For parents
Lead is a metal that is in many household products. It may be in old paint, gasoline, and dishware. Lead may also be in contaminated water. Lead poisoning is harmful to human health and should be avoided. Learn more about lead exposure on the NIEHS website.
For Parents
If you’re worried your health has been affected by lead, talk with your doctor at your next checkup. If you think someone has been poisoned by lead, call the Poison Control Center at (800) 222-1222 right away.