Lead poisoning is a serious matter. It happens slowly after repeated exposure to things that contain high levels of lead. This could be old paint, water, candy from another country, soil, and more. High levels of lead exposure don’t produce immediate symptoms. Long-term exposure can damage the brain, kidneys, and bone marrow. Marrow is the soft tissue inside bones. Symptoms of lead poisoning include stomach pain, headaches, vomiting, confusion, muscle weakness, seizures, hair loss, and anemia (a low red blood cell count).
Even low levels of lead exposure can cause health problems. This includes attention deficits, behavior problems, learning difficulties, and decreased IQ in young children. IQ stands for “intelligence quotient.” It measures a person’s intelligence.
Lead can be found in paint made before 1978. This paint is used on the walls of homes, old toys, jewelry, and more. Lead also is found in soil, in food and candy from other countries that don’t adequately screen for lead, and in the air (dust). Children under the age of 6 and pregnant women are most at risk for lead poisoning. Children tend to put things in their mouths, such as peeling paint chips, toys, dirt, etc. Dust from lead paint can contaminate their hands or other objects they may put in their mouths.
Children who live at or below the poverty line are more likely to be exposed to lead paint. This affects children of some racial and ethnic groups, as well. This population may be more likely to live in older housing. Many older houses and apartment buildings (especially those built before 1960) have lead-based paint on their walls. Lead also can be found in food or juice stored in foreign-made cans or improperly fired ceramic containers.
Path to improved well being
Lead poisoning can be prevented when you take the right steps.
- If you live in a house or an apartment building built before 1978, ask your doctor about testing your child for lead poisoning.
- Keep your child away from peeling paint if you live in an older home or apartment. Remove all peeling paint up to 5 feet above the floor.
- Repaint all rooms that contain lead paint. This will seal in the old paint and prevent it from peeling.
- When remodeling a room in an old house, seal off the room with heavy plastic. This reduces the spread of dust containing lead.
- Have everyone in the family wipe their feet and remove their shoes before walking through the home. This lowers the risk of exposure to dust contaminated with lead.
- Wash your child’s hands and face before meals.
- Wet-mop floors and window sills. This reduces the spread of dust contaminated with lead.
- Keep children from playing in soil that could be contaminated with lead. Make this assessment based on the age of the homes in your neighborhood.
- Do not cook with or eat from old pans and tableware. It is likely these items contain lead.
- Have your children change their clothes if you suspect they have been exposed to lead.
- Drink from cold tap water. Hot tap water produces more lead from aging pipes.
- Avoid folk medicine. These foods and herbs may contain lead.
Talk to your doctor or call your local health department to learn other ways to reduce your exposure to lead. Tell your doctor if you are concerned that your child may have been exposed to lead.
Things to consider
If your child has been exposed to lead, the following action may be necessary:
- If your child’s blood test indicate lead poisoning, your doctor will tell you how to lower your child’s levels. He or she also may prescribe medicine for your child. Your doctor will repeat the tests until the levels have decreased to a normal range.
- If one or more of your children has high blood lead levels, he or she will call your local health department. That agency can help. It can inspect your home for the source of the lead and help to make sure that the problem is corrected.
Questions to ask your doctor
- What if the age of my home is borderline? How do I know if it has lead-based paint?
- How do I know if the walls of my home have been repainted with newer paint?
- What physical symptoms should I look out for in my children?
- How do I know if I was exposed and damaged by lead when I was a child?
Copyright © American Academy of Family Physicians
This information provides a general overview and may not apply to everyone. Talk to your family doctor to find out if this information applies to you and to get more information on this subject.