Please note: This information was current at the time of publication but now may be out of date. This handout provides a general overview and may not apply to everyone. 

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Am Fam Physician. 2000;62(3):559-560

See related article on lightening the lead load in children.

What problems does lead cause?

High lead levels in the body can cause problems with the brain, kidneys, and bone marrow (soft tissue inside bones). Symptoms of high lead levels can include belly pain, headaches, vomiting, confusion, muscle weakness, seizures, hair loss or anemia (low red blood cell count).

Lower levels of lead in the body can still cause problems, like trouble paying attention, behavior problems, learning difficulties and a fall in the IQ of young children. (IQ stands for “intelligence quotient” and is one measure of how smart a person is.)

In what ways are children exposed to lead?

More than 4 percent of children in the United States have lead poisoning. Rates of lead poisoning are even higher in large cities and among people with low incomes.

The most common cause of lead poisoning today is old paint with lead in it. Lead has not been used in house paint since 1978. However, many older houses and apartment buildings (especially those built before 1960) have lead-based paint on their walls.

Toddlers explore their world by putting things in their mouths. Therefore, young children who live in older buildings are at especially high risk of getting lead poisoning. Children can get lead poisoning by chewing on pieces of peeling paint or by swallowing house dust or soil that contains tiny chips of the leaded paint from these buildings.

Lead can also be in air, water and food. Lead levels in the air have gone down greatly since lead was taken out of gasoline in the 1970s. Lead is still found in some old water pipes, although using lead solder to mend or put together water pipes is no longer allowed in the United States. Lead can also be found in food or juice stored in foreign-made cans or improperly fired ceramic containers.

How can I lower the risk that my child will get lead poisoning?

Here are some things you can do to lower your family's risk of lead poisoning:

  • If you live in a house or an apartment built before 1978, ask your doctor about blood lead testing for your child and keep your child away from peeling paint. The peeling paint needs to be removed from all surfaces up to 5 feet above the floor. It is also a good idea to repaint the rooms to seal in the lead paint.

  • If you're remodeling an old home, seal off the rooms that are being worked on. For example, put heavy sheets of plastic over doorways and windows of the work area.

  • If there's a problem with lead poisoning in the area where you live, or if a lot of older houses in your neighborhood are being remodeled, have your family wipe their feet and take their shoes off before they come into your home. This will lower the chance of tracking soil with lead in it into your home.

  • Wash your child's hands and face before meals.

To get more information about what you can do to lower your family's exposure to lead, talk to your doctor or call your local health department.

What will my doctor do if my child's blood has a high level of lead?

During well-child checkups for your baby, toddler, or preschooler, your doctor will ask you questions to see if there is a chance that your child might get lead poisoning. The doctor might test your child's blood for lead.

If your child's blood lead level is above the acceptable range, your doctor will give you information on how you can lower your child's lead level. Your doctor will then test your child's blood lead level every few months until the level drops into the normal range.

Fortunately, only a small number of babies and children have high enough levels of lead in their blood that they need treatment. If your child's blood lead level is very high, your doctor will treat your child with medicine to lower the amount of lead in the blood.

If one or more of your children has high blood lead levels, your doctor will call your local health department. Persons from the health department can help by inspecting your home for old peeling paint and getting workers to remove the paint or cover it with new paint.

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