Extension Specialist, Family Life Education
Cape Cod Extension
University of Massachusetts
Exposure to lead can result in lead poisoning, a serious disease that can damage the health of both children and adults. Once used in products such as house paint and gasoline, lead can contaminate water and food. Lead dust is easily inhaled or ingested from polluted air.
In the body lead impairs the function of the central nervous system, the production of red blood cells, and the functioning of vital organs such as the liver and kidneys. It is transported by the bloodstream and stored, sometimes for decades, in the bones. During pregnancy, lead stored in bones can reenter the mother's blood system and seriously harm the fetus.
Lead poisoning is widely recognized as a serious public health concern. Even small amounts of lead in the body, as measured by blood lead levels, can be harmful. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) set the permissible blood lead level to 10 micrograms per deciliter of blood as a result of studies that show even small doses of lead cause health problems.
Children face more serious risk from lead exposure than adults
because their growing bodies are very sensitive to lead's effects.
In addition, childhood behaviors, such as hand-to-mouth activities,
make it easy for lead to enter their bodies. Lead poisoning is
a common health problem that can affect children of all social
classes in urban, suburban, or rural areas.
The introduction of lead into a child's body can severely harm brain and central nervous system functions. Often this damage does not produce obvious symptoms, so harmful lead exposure can go untreated and result in impaired mental and physical development. Research has shown a noticeable relationship between high blood lead levels in children and lower IQ scores. Some effects, which may become permanent, include learning, behavioral, and physical problems such as :
To identify possible lead poisoning, look for these symptoms that are often mistaken for other illnesses:
Lead can seriously affect the health of adults, too. Anemia, altered red blood cells, and high blood pressure have all been linked to adult lead poisoning. Lead poisoning is a very serious illness, so investigate any signs of its effects by consulting a physician.
Lead-based paint is the most prevalent source of lead in the
home environment, even though it was banned from residential use
in 1978. Paint chips are a hazard if ingested, but lead paint
contributes to a more serious hazard - lead dust. Lead dust is
easily inhaled or ingested and very difficult to identify. It
may be scattered through the home, increasing the number of potential
exposure sources. Lead dust can contaminate toys; play areas,
including floors or soil; and food.
If surfaces that contain lead-based paint are in good condition, they do not pose a hazard and should be left alone. But any surface that shows signs of deterioration can easily release lead into the environment. Watch for these hazardous conditions:
Lead painted surfaces in and around the home include interior
and exterior walls, ceilings, stairway components, door trim,
and baseboards. Window frames painted with lead-based paint can
be a significant exposure risk. Friction from opening and closing
these windows can easily release lead
dust that can collect on windowsills and other nearby surfaces.
Any home renovation that disturbs lead painted surfaces can release very dangerous amounts of lead dust into the environment. Home renovations are a frequent cause of lead poisoning in children. Renovations should proceed only when those performing the work are well aware of the hazards and knowledgeable about procedures used to reduce the risk. Some states require contractors who remove lead paint to be licensed.
Any plumbing system that includes lead pipes or solder is another source of lead. Lead plumbing components contaminate water used for drinking, cooking, and bathing. Food becomes contaminated when prepared in leaded water.
Other sources of lead exposure include:
Verify the presence of lead in the home as the first step in
managing exposure risks. Have paint tested if it is a suspected
source of lead.
Currently there are three methods of testing for lead in paint. Self-testing kits are available at local hardware stores but may be unreliable. Another procedure, x-ray fluorescent analysis, is a recent
technology that is most accurate when administered by a qualified testing professional. Laboratory analysis, offered by most environmental testing laboratories, is the most reliable testing procedure. The same laboratories also can test water for the presence of lead.
If lead is present and surface conditions pose a hazard, its removal from the home environment is one means of eliminating exposure. This method - lead abatement - is very costly and can create dangerously high levels of lead dust. Following strict safety guidelines is the only way to manage
risks resulting from exposure to lead dust. Therefore, lead abatement is not recommended for the do-it-yourselfer; only professionals trained and experienced in lead paint removal procedures should attempt the task.
To eliminate other sources of exposure,
If removal is impractical or too costly, consider partial abatement
of only those surfaces that pose a risk. Sealing surfaces with
a high-quality paint or durable elastic coating offers protection
if the surfaces are in good condition. This procedure produces
no lead dust and is inexpensive.
A combination of preventive measures can minimize exposure to lead. To control risks from lead dust,
Fortunately, there are preventive measures that can reduce
exposure to lead-contaminated water. Most important, always allow
the water to run for at least two minutes before the first use
of the day, especially when mixing juice or baby formula. Water
that remains dormant in a plumbing
system for extended periods can collect high concentrations of lead; running the faucet will flush this water from the system. Other recommendations:
To screen for lead exposure, all children should have a blood lead test at the age of 12 months. Children in high-risk exposure groups should be tested at 6 and 24 months of age - more frequently if recommended by a health provider. High-risk children include those who:
Lead poisoning is a very serious disease. Even low levels of
lead may cause adverse health effects. Fortunately, this health
hazard can be prevented by identifying the risks and taking actions
designed to eliminate and reduce exposure. Part of this effort
includes testing all children at the age of one year for elevated
blood lead levels. The result of these activities will be a safe,
lead-free home for children and adults alike.