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Lead is a toxic metal that is common in the environment. Experts believe that no level of lead in the body is safe for children. Concern about lead poisoning in children occurs when lead reaches a level of 10 micrograms per deciliter (mcg/dL) in the blood. Levels of 20 mcg/dL or more represent actual lead poisoning. This can lead to:
Lower levels of blood lead below currently accepted safe levels can lead to learning and/or behavioral difficulties. They can also delay puberty in boys.
Lead can be absorbed into the bloodstream by eating, drinking, or breathing contaminated particles.
Lead is used in many industrial processes and within the home. It can be found in:
Children who are 6 years old and younger are at increased risk for lead poisoning. Other factors that may increase your child's chances of lead poisoning:
Children with lead poisoning often show no symptoms. However, the toxic metal can negatively affect nearly every system in the body.
One of the most serious concerns is lead's harmful effect on the nervous system. For every 10 mcg/dL increase in blood lead levels, there is a 2-3 point decline in IQ test scores. Lead poisoning is also associated with neurodevelopment problems such as:
Other possible signs of lead poisoning include:
You will be asked about your child's symptoms and medical history. A physical exam will be done. Lead poisoning is diagnosed with a blood test.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Academy of Pediatrics recommend that children at high risk for lead poisoning have their blood levels tested. This should be done until the age of 3 for all children and until the age of 4 to 5 in children who are at higher risk.
Treatment depends on the severity of lead poisoning.
Treatment may include:
If your child has mild-to-moderate lead poisoning (20-44 mcg/dL), medication may not be prescribed. Doctors will work with social workers and public health officials to eliminate lead at home and at school. They then carefully monitor blood levels until the lead naturally works its way out of your child's system.
If your child has moderate to severe lead poisoning (45-69 mcg/dL), medication will be needed. Medications may include oral or IV chelating agents that bind to lead and speed its removal from your child's body through urine. Blood levels above 70 mcg/dL are considered acute cases. Hospitalization and emergency medical treatment are necessary.
To help reduce your child's chances of lead poisoning:
Try not to vacuum hard surfaces. Instead, use wet wipes or lead-absorbing detergents to avoid spreading lead-filled dust. Vacuuming with cleaners that use HEPA air filtration may be safe and effective for floors and other hard surfaces. Eliminating lead hazards usually requires window replacement and careful surface repainting. Lead-containing dust tends to build up in carpets. Until further evidence about effective carpet cleaning becomes available, replacement of carpets is the only known way to reduce risks from floor coverings. When outside dirt is contaminated, it may need to be dug up and replaced with clean soil.
Take the following precautions:
Parents who work with lead or whose hobbies involve lead should take special precautions to protect themselves and their children from lead contact.
Environmental Protection Agency
National Safety Council
About Kids Health—The Hospital for Sick Children
Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety
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Lead. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. Available at: https://www.cdc.gov/nceh/lead. Updated December 4, 2017. Accessed March 26, 2018.
Lead. Environmental Protection Agency website. Available at: https://www.epa.gov/lead. Accessed March 26, 2018.
Lead poisoning in children. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at:http://www.dynamed.com/topics/dmp~AN~T116091/Lead-poisoning-in-children. Updated September 13, 2017. Accessed March 26, 2018.
Lozoff B, Jimenez E, Wolf AW. Higher infant blood lead levels with longer duration of breastfeeding. J Pediatr. 2009;155(5):663-667.
Ronchetti R, Van Den Hazel P, Schoeters G. Lead neurotoxicity in children: is prenatal exposure more important than postnatal exposure? Acta Paediatr. 2006;95(453):45-49.
7/2/2010 DynaMed Plus Systematic Literature Surveillancehttp://www.dynamed.com/topics/dmp~AN~T116091/Lead-poisoning-in-children: Williams PL, Sergeyev O, Lee MM, et al. Blood lead levels and delayed onset of puberty in a longitudinal study of Russian boys. Pediatrics. 2010;125(5):e1088-1096.
Last reviewed March 2018 by EBSCO Medical Review Board Marcin Chwistek, MD Last Updated: 2/21/2017