Exposure to lead can happen to anyone. Know the sources of lead poisoning and how to prevent it.
What do old homes, tap water, antiques and soil have in common? They can all be possible sources of lead. If you have an older home, live near a busy road or work in construction, you may be at risk for exposure to this toxic metal.
What causes lead poisoning?
When we’re exposed to lead, it starts to accumulate in our bodies. That buildup happens over months or even years and can lead to lead poisoning. Many common products we interact with regularly contain lead — some you probably don’t expect.
Lead-based paint was banned in the U.S in 1978, but it may be present in older homes and buildings. “You can come into contact with lead paint if you inhale dust particles or ingest fragments from paint chips,” says Karina Phang, MD, pediatrician at Geisinger. Lead paint from older buildings can make its way into the soil, which can spread to water and plants.
Aside from lead paint, soil can be contaminated in a few ways. Water that contains lead can seep into the ground. Lead exhaust from factories and vehicles using leaded gas (which was banned in 1996) accumulate in the air over time. Those particles eventually settle into the earth.
Pipes and plumbing systems
Outdated pipes or plumbing systems containing lead are common in older homes. They can contribute to lead poisoning over time through a process called leaching. As water flows through these old pipes, it picks up small amounts of lead. When that water is used for cooking, drinking or bathing, you can absorb lead along with it. It’s important to note that not all old plumbing systems contain lead. If you’re not sure, a simple test can confirm that you have lead pipes. “If a magnet won’t stick, you can easily scratch the surface with a coin or the pipe is silver, they contain lead,” Dr. Phang notes.
Have you checked the labels of your child’s favorite toys lately? Many children’s toys, games and accessories are made with ingredients that contain lead. Those toys by themselves aren’t harmful. But because many children often stick objects or their hands in their mouths, lead can get into their systems. If you suspect your child has been exposed to lead, contact their healthcare provider. They can walk you through next steps, including lead testing.
Not all cosmetics are created equal. “Many cosmetics contain ingredients associated with lead,” says Dr. Phang. “Especially play or costume makeup.” They’re most commonly found in eyeliners, hair dyes and lipsticks. To reduce your risk, look for non-toxic products. And avoid imported cosmetics. Other countries may not have the same regulations and may use lead.
You might not realize that many common imported goods contain lead. Things like glassware, pottery, spices, candies and herbal remedies can all be culprits, particularly those from Mexico and Asia. Items may contain lead if they:
- Are hand-crafted outside of the United States
- Are white, bright yellow or red
- Have wrappers printed with lead-based inks
- Have started to chip, crack or wear
- Develop a grey film or chalky residue after washing
Not sure if an item is contaminated? Throw it away.
Like many people, you probably have vinyl blinds on some of your windows. If your blinds are imported and were made before 1997, they may contain lead. Through exposure to sun and heat, lead dust forms on the blinds, which can be released into the air. Think your blinds might be outdated? Consider replacing them with ones labeled “no lead added”. Or switch to a different covering altogether.
Certain occupations and activities
Depending on what you or someone close to you does for a living, you may be at risk for lead toxicity. Lead exposure at work is common in many industries, particularly:
- Construction and plumbing
- Auto repair
- Glass blowing
- Industrial sanding and painting
- Manufacturing items that contain lead, like:
- Metal parts
Besides exposure through work, certain hobbies can potentially pose exposure risks, including:
- Jewelry making
- Shooting firearms
- Making ceramics or pottery
- Home renovations
- Restoring antique items
What are the symptoms of lead poisoning?
Symptoms of lead poisoning in adults look different than they do in children. Children are at the greatest risk of developing lead poisoning. But lead poisoning also impacts adults. And symptoms may not show right away.
“Lead poisoning symptoms develop slowly, over a period of weeks or months,” Dr. Phang says.
Symptoms in children
Symptoms of lead poisoning in children include:
- Developmental delays
- Learning disabilities
- Difficulty paying attention
- Mood changes
- Abdominal pain and vomiting
- Hearing loss
“Babies exposed to lead in the womb are at risk of being born prematurely or having a lower birth weight,” Dr. Phang says.
Symptoms in adults
Adults with lead poisoning may show any or all these symptoms:
- Abdominal pain
- Mood changes
- Reduced fertility
- Joint or muscle pain
- High blood pressure
“Because the symptoms are vague and could be symptoms of other conditions, most people aren’t thinking about lead poisoning,” Dr. Phang says.
How to treat lead poisoning
If you suspect lead poisoning for you or a loved one, start by talking with your healthcare provider. They may order a blood test to check for lead toxicity. If you have lead in your blood, they may recommend a treatment called chelation therapy.
This involves taking a medication for a few weeks that binds with lead in your system. You’ll excrete excess lead through your urine, which will lower levels in the body.
How to prevent lead exposure
Preventing lead poisoning is easier than you think. Start with these:
- Regularly clean your home to reduce lead dust accumulation.
- If you live in an older home, consider having it tested for lead-based paint.
- Use a water filter.
- Invest in an at-home lead testing kit to check for contaminants.
- Encourage good hygiene practices, like washing hands before meals and after playing outside.
- Wear proper safety gear at work or when doing home projects, including a respirator if needed.
And if you’re concerned about your family’s risk, talk to your healthcare provider. They can help you build a plan to keep the whole family healthy.