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Articles » Lead Exposure: NWHIC

Lead Exposure: NWHIC

Article title: Lead Exposure: NWHIC

Conditions: Lead poisoning

Source: NWHIC


What are the health effects of lead in the body?
How can I test my family for lead exposure?
How does lead get into my body?
How can I reduce lead hazards in my house?
Why should women and children be so concerned about lead exposure?

What are the health effects of lead in the body?

If not detected early, children with lead in their bodies can suffer from:

  • Damage to the brain and nervous system

  • Behavior and learning problems (such as hyperactivity)

  • Slowed growth

  • Hearing problems

  • Headaches

Lead is also harmful to adults. Adults can suffer from:

  • Difficulties during pregnancy

  • Other reproductive problems (in both men and women)

  • High blood pressure

  • Digestive problems

  • Nerve disorders

  • Memory and concentration problems

  • Muscle and joint pain

Too much lead in the body can seriously injure the brain, nervous system, red blood cells, and kidneys.

Higher levels of lead in the body can cause mental retardation, fits (convulsions), falling out (unconsciousness, coma), and even death. In years past, that kind of effect was called lead poisoning. Exposures high enough to cause coma and death are very uncommon today, but they haven’t disappeared.

How can I test my family for lead exposure?

A simple blood test can detect high levels of lead.

Blood tests are important for:

  • Children who are 6 months to 1 year old (6 months if you live in an older building or home that might have lead in the paint).

  • Family members that you think might have high levels of lead.

If your child is older than 1 year, talk to your doctor about whether your child needs testing;.

Your doctor or health center can do blood tests. They are inexpensive and sometimes free. Your doctor will explain what the test results mean. Treatment can range from changes in your diet medication or a hospital stay.

How does lead get into my body?

People can get lead in their body if they:

  • Put their hands or other objects covered with lead dust in their mouths.

  • Eat paint chips or soil that contain lead.

  • Breathe in lead dust (especially during renovations that disturb painted surfaces).

Lead is more dangerous to children than adults because:

  • Babies and young children often put their hands and other objects in their mouths. These objects can have lead dust on them.

  • Children’s growing bodies absorb more lead.

  • Children’s brains and nervous systems are more sensitive to the damaging effects of lead.

Drinking water. 

  • Your home might have plumbing with lead or lead solder. Call your local health department or water supplier to find out about testing your water. You cannot see, smell, or taste lead, and boiling your water will not get rid of lead. If you think your plumbing might have lead in it:
  • Use only cold water for drinking and cooking

  • Run water for 15 to 30 seconds before drinking it, especially if you have not used your water for a few hours.

The Job

  • If you work with lead, you could bring it home on your hands or clothes. Shower and change clothes before coming home. Launder your clothes separately from the rest of your family’s.

Old painted toys and furniture.

Food and liquids stored in lead crystal or lead-glazed pottery or porcelain.

Lead smelters or other industries that release lead into the air.

Hobbies that use lead, such as making pottery or stained glass, or refinishing furniture

Folk remedies that contain lead, such as "Great" and "azarcon" used to treat an upset stomach.

How can I reduce lead hazards in my house?

In addition to day-to-day cleaning and good nutrition:

  • You can temporarily reduce lead hazards by taking actions like repairing damaged painted surfaces and planting grass to cover soil with high lead levels. These actions (called "interim controls") are not permanent solutions and will not eliminate all risks of exposure.
  • To permanently remove lead hazardous, you must hire a lead "abatement" contractor. Abatement (or permanent hazard elimination) methods include removing, sealing, or enclosing lead based paint with special materials. Just painting over the hazard with regular paint is not enough.

Always have a person with special training for correcting lead problems--someone who knows how to do this work safely and has the proper equipment to clean up thoroughly. If possible, hire a certified lead abatement contractor. Certified contractors will employ qualified workers and follow strict safety rules as set by their state or by the federal government.

Call your state agency for help with locating qualified contractors in your area and to see if financial assistance is available.

If you suspect that your house has lead hazards, you can take some immediate steps to reduce your family’s risk:

  • If you rent, notify your landlord of peeling or chipping paint.

  • Clean up paint chips immediately.

  • Clean floors, window frames, window sills and other surfaces weekly. Use a mop or sponge with warm water and a general all-purpose cleaner or a cleaner made specifically for lead. REMEMBER: NEVER MIX AMMONIA AND BLEACH PRODUCTS TOGETHER SINCE THEY CAN FORM A DANGEROUS GAS.

  • Thoroughly rinse sponges and mop heads after cleaning dirty or dusty areas.

  • Wash children’s hands often, especially before they eat and before nap time and bed time.

  • Keep play areas clean. Wash bottles, pacifiers, toys, and stuffed animals regularly.

  • Keep children from chewing window sills or other painted surfaces.

  • Clean or remove shoes before entering your home to avoid tracking in lead from soil.

  • Make sure children eat nutritious, low-fat meals high in iron and calcium, such as spinach and low-fat dairy products. Children with good diets absorb less lead.

Why should women and children be so concerned about lead exposure?

Lead accumulates in our bodies, and especially in children’s bodies. Exposures to small amounts of lead over time can mean a long term accumulation of lead in a child, raising the child’s risk of bad health effects.

Pregnant women who have lead stored in their bones may release some of that bone lead into their blood, where it can reach the womb and fetus during pregnancy. That kind of transfer potential makes us think about lead exposures in today’s children and what that may mean for their children.

Because children are still developing, the potential damage to their development from lead exposure is very important to their future health and well-being. Low levels of lead in the body when a child’s brain is developing can slow the child’s development and cause learning and behavior problems. Lead-exposed children may not be as quick at their studies or as good at hitting a baseball or dribbling a basketball as children without the lead exposures.

This information has been taken from "Lead and Your Health", Department of Health and Human Services, National Institutes of Health, National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. NIH Publication No. 92-3465 and, "Protect Your Family From Lead in Your Home", Environmental Protection Agency, Consumer Product Safety Commission. May 1995. EPA747-K-94-001.

For more information...

You can find out more about lead exposure by contacting the following organizations:

National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences

Environmental Protection Agency

You can also search for more women's environmental health topics at:   "Women’s Health and the Environment: A Federal Inventory of Activities".

All material contained in the FAQs is free of copyright restrictions, and may be copied, reproduced, or duplicated without permission of the Office on Women's Health in the Department of Health and Human Services; citation of the source is appreciated.

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Publication date: 1998


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