Environmental Health Section
Healthy Homes and Lead Poisoning Prevention Program
Frequently Asked Questions About Lead
What is lead?
Lead is a heavy metal found in the earth's crust. It can combine with other chemicals to form lead compounds or salts. Lead is a natural element that does not break down in the environment and is very hard to clean up.
Lead was added to gasoline to raise the octane level. In 1996, the federal government banned the sale of gasoline with lead. Lead was also added to paint so that it would last longer and stick to surfaces better. In 1978, the federal government banned lead in residential paints.
Lead is still used in some cosmetics and hair dyes, medical supplies, commercial paints, scientific equipment, and military equipment.
What is lead poisoning?
It's an illness that occurs when someone swallows or inhales lead. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) defines childhood lead poisoning as 10 ug/dl (micrograms per deciliter) or more of lead within the body at the time of screening.
How does lead affect your health?
Lead can be harmful to anyone. However, children under the age of six are at the greatest risk of being harmed by lead. Their bodies easily absorb lead, which can be bad for the developing brain and other organs and systems. Children also tend to put things in their mouths. When children put items in their mouth that have no nutritional value, such as dirt or flaking paint, this is called pica.
For children, low levels of lead in their bodies can be just as harmful as high levels of lead.
Low levels of lead (<10ug/dL) can result in:
- Speech, language, and behavioral and problems
- Lower IQ
- Learning disabilities and attention deficit disorder
- Nervous system damage
Higher levels of lead (>10ug/dL) can result in:
- Mental retardation
Unborn babies are also at risk for lead poisoning. A pregnant woman can pass lead on to her unborn child in the womb. This exposure can cause premature birth, low birth weight and small size, and miscarriage and stillbirth. A mother with an increased blood lead level (BLL) who breast-feeds can expose her child to lead.
Although children are at a greater risk of being harmed by lead, it's still harmful for adults too. In adults, high BLLs can cause increased blood pressure, reproductive health problems, anemia, nerve disorders, and memory and concentration problems.
- Lead-based paint - Many children get lead poisoning when they eat paint chips or inhale dust from peeling lead-based paint, in or outside the house. Houses built before 1978 are more likely to contain lead paint than houses built after 1978. Lead-based paint may also be found on toys and furniture.
- Soil - Soil can get lead in it when paint on the outside of houses, buildings, or other structures flakes or peels. Lead can also be found in soil around old playground equipment.
- Drinking water - Drinking water can become contaminated with lead when it passes through older lead pipes, newer brass pipes, or copper pipes that are joined with lead solder. Over time water can corrode the pipes, letting lead into the water.
- Jobs and hobbies - Working parents may bring lead home on their hands, clothing, and shoes. Jobs that expose people to lead include painting, construction or home remodeling, radiator repair, battery or scrap metal recycling, pottery manufacturing, working with guns and ammunition, industries using lead solder, roadwork, and shipbuilding.
Dust and fumes from hobbies (such as stained-glass production, pottery, refinishing furniture, making fishing weights, jewelry, etc.) can be a source of lead too.
- Air - Before the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) banned leaded gasoline, most lead released into the environment came from car exhaust. Other sources of lead released into the air include burning fuel, such as coal or oil, industrial processes, and burning solid waste.
- Lead-glazed ceramic ware, pottery, and leaded crystal - Food and liquids can become contaminated when put in pottery, dishes, and crystal that contain lead.
- Folk Remedies and Cosmentics - Traditional folk medicines and cosmetics such as Greta, azarcon, paylooah, surma and kohl may contain high levels of lead.
- Moonshine - Some parts, such as automobile radiators or lead pipes, used in the distillation process to make moonshine may have contaminated the alcohol with lead.
- Mini or Venetian blinds - Mini-blinds that are made outside of the United States may contain lead. Over time, sunlight and heat cause lead dust to form on the surface of these mini-blinds. Children could inhale this lead dust.
- Have your child's blood tested for lead poisoning.
- Be sure your child washes his/her hands often, especially after being outside, before eating, and before bedtime.
- Wash toys, stuffed animals, and pacifiers often.
- Do not allow your child to eat or chew on things that may contain lead.
- Mop floors and wash windowsills with a wet cloth and warm soapy water. Use a wet sponge or rag to wipe up paint chips.
- When outside, make sure your child plays on grass or in a sandbox - not in the dirt.
- Do not store food in old or imported pottery or glassware.
- Run water from the tap for 1-2 minutes before drinking or cooking with it. Use only cold water from the faucet for cooking, drinking, or making baby formula.
- If lead is used where you work, change your clothes and shoes before entering your house. Always wash your hands too.
- Make sure you and your family eats a well-balanced diet that is low in fat and high in calcium, iron, and Vitamin D.
- Do not remove lead paint yourself. Hire a certified contractor to remove lead paint from your home.
- If you rent property, tell the landlord about peeling or flaking paint.
- For your child - A simple blood test is used to measure the level of lead in one's body. Contact your child's doctor for additional information and/or to request a test. You can also contact your local health department to inquire about screening. The only way to know for sure if your child has been exposed to lead is to have the test done.
- For your home - Home test kits are sold at local hardware stores. They are used to detect lead in paint, soil, and dust. Some kits can test dishes, glasses, and ceramics. The Federal Government DOES NOT currently advise using home test kits to detect lead. These kits are not always reliable. If you want your home tested, contact a lead inspector or lead risk assessor.
- For water - Contact your local health department or water supplier to find out about testing your water for lead.