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:
- 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
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
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
- Nausea and vomiting
- Lack of hunger and weight loss
- Belly pain
- Problems sleeping
- Seizures or coma
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.
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
Last Updated: 1/11/2021