by Amy Scholten, MPH
Lead is a metal found in the environment. It is toxic to humans when it is inhaled or taken in after eating something that has lead. Only small amounts of lead will pass through the body, the rest is easily absorbed by organs and bones. Lead will continue to build up in the body with repeated exposure. It can cause damage to organs.
Children are at higher risk of damage from lead poisoning. It is known to cause mental and physical growth problems.
The most common causes are exposure to:
This problem is more common in children under 5 years of age. Other things that may raise the risk are:
Children with lead poisoning may not have symptoms. Those who do may have:
The doctor will ask about symptoms and past health. 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 depends on the severity of lead poisoning. The most important step is to prevent further exposure to lead. Public health officials can help. They have guidelines for reducing lead exposure at home. This may be enough for those with mild to moderate poisoning. Lead levels will be tested often to look for any increase.
Chelation therapy may be needed for those with high lead levels. This therapy uses special medicine that binds to lead. Once combined, it is easier for the body to get rid of it.
Treatment may be needed to address problems caused by lead poisoning.
Lead at home most often comes from old lead-based paint. Public health officials can explain how best to deal with old paint. They can also highlight local areas that have higher risk of lead exposure.
Environmental Protection Agency
National Safety Council
About Kids Health—The Hospital for Sick Children
Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety
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 2021 by EBSCO Medical Review Board Marcin Chwistek, MD