Lead Poisoning

What is Lead Poisoning?

Lead poisoning is a type of metal poisoning caused by the increased levels of the metal lead in a person’s body. Lead poisoning happens when you absorb too much lead by breathing or swallowing a substance with lead in it. Lead is contained in art supplies, contaminated dust, and gasoline sold in a very few countries outside of Canada and the United States. Typical sources of exposure are occupational or connected to hobbies such as home remodeling, auto repair, stained glass making, glazed pottery making.

Lead is a highly toxic metal and a very strong poison that interferes with a number of body processes and is toxic to many tissues and organs including the bones, heart, kidneys, intestines, and reproductive and nervous systems. The brain is the organ that is the most sensitive to lead exposure. According to the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) it is estimated that more than 3 million workers in the United States are potentially exposed to lead where they work.

What are the Symptoms of Lead Poisoning?

Lead is highly toxic and affects the body in several different manners. Main symptoms include neurological effects (neuropathy, fatigue, seizures, encephalopathy), gastrointestinal effects (nausea, constipation, colic), reproductive effects (miscarriages, infertility), heme synthesis (anemia), renal and muscular effects.

Acute signs include abdominal pain, constipation, problems sleeping,  high blood pressure, headaches, loss of memory, anemia, irritability, abdominal cramps, loss of appetite, kidney dysfunction, aggressive behavior, and numbness or tingling in the extremities.

Children who are exposed to lead may develop behavior problems, problems hearing, delayed growth, poor academic performance, and low IQ together with a loss of developmental skills.

Lead Poisoning Causes

Lead based paints for children’s toys, homes, and other household furniture are the most common sources of lead poisoning. Most lead poisoning, especially in children, results from ingestion of chips of deteriorating lead-based paint.

Another common source of lead poisoning is water pipes and canned food products. Due to leaching, lead often ends up in tap water through lead pipes, copper pipes and brass plumbing fixtures that are soldered with lead. The same applies to lead solder in food cans.

Lead can sometimes be found in the soil as well. Lead-contaminated soil is a common problem along highways as well as in some industrial parks. Some soil close to older buildings may contain elevated levels of lead too.

Other sources of lead poisoning including household dust from contaminated walls and nearby soil, toys, pottery, some cosmetics (especially Tiro, an eye cosmetic from Nigeria), and Mexican candy. Occupations like painting and paint manufacturing, mining, pipe fitting and auto repair may also expose an individual to lead poisoning.

How is Lead Poisoning Treated?

The first step is to locate and get rid of the source of lead. It’s important to keep children away from the lead source. Call your local health department for information on how to remove lead. It’s also important to consume nutritious foods and even get chelation therapy in certain cases (when for example removing the source of exposure is not enough and symptoms do not disappear).

Make sure that you hire professional to get rid of lead-based paint and any dust that comes with it.

Lead Poisoning Prevention

Simple steps can help protect your loved ones from lead poisoning. One such step is determining when the home you are presently living in, or plan to move into, was built. Remember, the risk of lead poisoning is higher in older homes. Take extra precaution to prevent lead poisoning if your home was built before 1978.

Next, look out for peeling or cracking lead paint. While lead paint that is not cracking or chipping may not pose an immediate health risk, it is important to understand that small amounts of lead can still cause health problems. Be sure to carry out an inspection to determine if there is any lead based paint on any surface within your home. If lead paint is found in your home, contact an abatement team as soon as possible to strip the paint and clean the house.

Finally, purchase lead-free products for yourself and family. Look out for lead-free labels on toys, utensils, and cookwares.

Last Reviewed:
September 21, 2016
Last Updated:
March 12, 2018