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What is lead poisoning?

Lead poisoning occurs when lead — a metal that was once a common ingredient in paint and is still used in batteries, pipes, pottery, and even cosmetics — builds up in the body. Little by little, lead can collect in your child's blood, brain, and bones. Symptoms may take a long time to appear, but at toxic levels, lead poisoning can affect your child's language, attention, and even IQ. Lead can affect people of all ages, but children aged 6 and younger are especially at risk, in part because their growing bodies absorb more lead.

  • Lead poisoning is a totally preventable disease.
  • The most common causes of lead poisoning are lead-based paint and lead-contaminated dust in older buildings.
  • Lead exposure can harm young children and babies — even before they are born.
  • Even children that seem healthy can have high levels of lead in their bodies.
  • High levels of lead may also cause seizures, coma, and, in rare cases, death.
  • The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimated that almost 500,000 children between the ages of 1 and 5 living in the United States have elevated lead levels. Approximately one out of every 25 children has dangerous levels of lead in their bloodstream.

Lead Poisoning | Symptoms & Causes

What causes lead poisoning?

How else might my child be exposed to lead?

  • lead paint or dust in homes built before 1978
  • traditional home remedies, such as azarcon and greta
  • old jewelry
  • drinking water contaminated by old pipes
  • home remodeling

What are the symptoms of lead poisoning?

Lead poisoning can affect just about every system in the body but often produces no definitive symptoms. Common symptoms of lead poisoning in children include:

Babies in the womb who are exposed to lead through their mothers may have:

  • learning difficulties
  • slowed growth

Lead Poisoning | Diagnosis & Treatments

How do we diagnose lead poisoning?

Your child's physician can test your child's blood levels for lead. The tests are inexpensive or, in some cases, free. Your child's physician will explain the test results to you and recommend treatment.

If you think your home has high levels of lead:   

  • have young children tested for lead, even if they seem healthy
  • make sure your entire family washes their hands before eating and going to bed
  • wash your child's bottles, pacifiers, and toys often
  • make sure your child eats healthful foods with adequate iron and calcium (minerals which can help decrease lead absorption)
  • have your home checked for lead hazards, including water faucets
  • clean floors, windowsills, and other surfaces with soapy water often
  • wipe soil off shoes before entering the house
  • talk with your landlord about fixing surfaces with peeling or chipping paint
  • take precautions to avoid exposure to lead dust when remodeling or renovating (call 800-424-LEAD for guidelines)
  • don't use a belt-sander, propane torch, dry scraper, or dry sandpaper on painted surfaces that may contain lead
  • don't try to remove lead-based paint yourself (have it professionally removed)

Lead is also harmful to adults, who may suffer from:

  • difficulties during pregnancy
  • reproductive problems in both men and women
  • high blood pressure
  • digestive problems
  • nerve disorders
  • memory and concentration problems
  • muscle and joint pain.

How do we treat lead poisoning?

Treatment can range from changes in your diet to medications or a hospital stay. Lead poisoning is treatable with a medicine that pulls lead out of the blood.

It's most important that you identify and get rid of the source of the lead poisoning. Your local health department can recommend ways to identify and reduce lead in your home and community. In some cases, avoiding further exposure to lead may be adequate to lower your child's lead levels.

How we care for lead poisoning

At Boston Children's Hospital's Pediatric Environmental Health Center, our staff is doing research to answer important questions about lead poisoning, including how lead affects children of different ages and what are the best ways to treat children with lead poisoning.

Lead Poisoning | Programs & Services