Lead Poisoning—Child

Definition

Lead is a toxic metal in the environment. In children, lead poisoning is a blood level of lead that is 20 mcg/dL or more. It can lead to brain damage.

Causes

Lead poisoning is caused by eating, drinking, or breathing in tiny pieces of lead. This can happen quickly or over a period of time.

The most common causes are exposure to:

  • Lead-based paint—used in homes built before 1978
  • Dust, soil, or fumes that contain lead
  • Drinking water from lead pipes or pipes with lead-based soldering
  • Foods in lead-soldered cans from outside the US

Risk Factors

This problem is more common in children under 5 years of age. Other things that may raise the risk are:

  • Eating non-food items
  • Living in a house or apartment built before 1978, especially before 1960
  • Drinking water from pipes built before 1986
  • Living with adults who are exposed to lead— from work or hobbies
  • Receiving blood transfusions from adults with high lead levels
  • Being born to a mother with high levels of lead
  • Having low levels of iron in the blood

Symptoms

Children with lead poisoning may not have symptoms. Those who do may have:

  • Problems with behavior, learning, and attention
  • Difficulty hearing
  • Slow growth
  • Tiredness or weakness
  • Headaches
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Weight loss
  • Lack of hunger
  • Belly pain
  • Problems sleeping
  • Irritability
  • Clumsiness

Diagnosis

The doctor will ask about your child's symptoms and health history. A physical exam will be done. A blood test can diagnose lead poisoning. This test may also be done in young children as part of a routine appointment.

Treatment

Treatment depends on the severity of lead poisoning. It may include:

  • Monitoring the lead levels of a child with mild to moderate poisoning
  • Using medicine to remove lead from the body of a child with severe poisoning

Sources of lead will need to be removed from the child's environment. Public health officials can help.

Prevention

The risk of lead poisoning can be lowered by removing sources of lead from a child's environment.

RESOURCES:

Environmental Protection Agency
https://www.epa.gov
National Safety Council
http://www.nsc.org

CANADIAN RESOURCES:

About Kids Health—The Hospital for Sick Children
http://www.aboutkidshealth.ca
Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety
http://www.ccohs.ca

References:

Hauptman M, Bruccoleri R, et al. An update on childhood lead poisoning.Clin Pediatr Emerg Med. 2017 Sep; 18(3): 181–192.
Lead. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. Available at: https://www.cdc.gov/nceh/lead. Accessed January 11, 2021.
Lead. Environmental Protection Agency website. Available at: https://www.epa.gov/lead. Accessed January 11, 2021.
Lead poisoning in children. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: https://www.dynamed.com/condition/lead-poisoning-in-children. Accessed January 11, 2021.
Last reviewed February 2020 by EBSCO Medical Review Board Marcin Chwistek, MD
Last Updated: 1/11/2021

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