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.
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
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
Tiredness or weakness
Nausea and vomiting
Lack of hunger
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 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.
The risk of lead poisoning can be lowered by removing sources of lead from a child's environment.
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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