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Lead poisoning or lead toxicity refers to exposures to lead that result in illness and require immediate medical attention. It is used to describe cases when there are severe health effects related to high blood lead levels. If blood lead levels are 45 micrograms per deciliter (μg/dL) or greater, healthcare providers may recommend medication to help remove lead from the body. However, children are highly sensitive to lead and exposure at lower levels has been shown to cause harm. CDC provides a summary of Recommended Actions Based on Blood Lead Level.
Many factors affect how different people’s bodies handle exposure to lead. These factors include a person’s age, nutritional status, source of lead exposure, amount of lead exposure, underlying health conditions, and length of exposure. Many children exposed to lead have no obvious symptoms. Some exposures, however, cause more obvious health effects that need urgent treatment.
No level of lead exposure or lead in the body is safe for children. Even low levels of lead that were once considered safe have been linked to harmful changes in intelligence, behavior, and health. Children are most at risk because they are still developing physically and mentally.
A blood lead reference value (BLRV) of 3.5 micrograms per deciliter (µg/dL) can be used to identify children with blood lead levels higher than those of most U.S. children, determine appropriate follow-up actions, and prevent further exposure. The BLRV is simply the level at which a child has more lead in their blood than do most U.S. children (97.5% of children age 1–5 years).
If you are concerned that your child has been exposed to lead, contact their healthcare provider to get a blood lead test. Based on the results of the test, actions can be taken to reduce further exposure to lead and connect them to recommended treatment and services. Lead exposure is preventable.
No safe blood lead level in children has been identified. Children are especially at risk from lead because of their small size and developing brains. Lead exposure can affect nearly every system in the body. Even low levels of lead in blood have been shown to negatively affect a child’s intelligence, ability to pay attention, and academic achievement. Removing all sources of lead exposure is important before a child is harmed. The good news is that childhood lead poisoning is preventable. The most important step that parents and caregivers, healthcare providers, and public health professionals can take is to prevent lead exposure before it occurs.
A blood lead test is the best way to find out if a child has been exposed to lead. Most children with lead in their blood have no obvious symptoms. If a child may have been exposed to lead, the child’s parent or caregiver should talk to their health care provider about getting a blood lead test.
Health care providers and most local health departments can test for blood lead. Many private insurance policies cover the cost of testing for blood lead. The cost of blood lead testing for children enrolled in Medicaid is covered by the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid services. Children enrolled in Medicaid should be tested at ages 12 and 24 months. Contact the appropriate childhood lead poisoning prevention program in your area for questions about testing for lead.
Pediatric Environmental Health Specialty Units (PEHSU) are also a source of information. PEHSUs are a regional source of medical information and advice on environmental conditions that influence reproductive and children’s health. They work with health care professionals, parents, schools and community groups, and others to provide information on protecting children and reproductive-age adults from environmental hazards.
Children under 6 years of age are at greatest risk for health problems caused by lead exposure. This is because their bodies are still developing and growing so rapidly. Young children also tend to put their hands or other objects, which may be contaminated with lead dust, into their mouth.
Any child can be exposed to lead. However, some groups of children are at higher risk, including children who:
- Live or spend time in homes built before 1978, especially those with paint that is chipping, peeling, or in poor condition.
- Live in pre-1978 housing with recent, ongoing, or planned renovation or remodeling.
- Are in households with incomes below the federal poverty level.
- Are members of racial-ethnic minority groups that have been economically/socially marginalized.
- Are recent immigrants from countries with lead in the environment.
- Have siblings, housemates, or playmates with known lead exposure.
- Have parents or household members who are exposed to lead at work or through a hobby.
- Live near active lead and other types of smelters, battery recycling plants, or other industries that release lead into the air.
Children who are exposed to lead through certain consumer products are also at a higher risk. These consumer products include:
- candy and candy wrappers, spices, and toys or jewelry
- traditional medicines and cosmetics
- herbal and Ayurvedic remedies
- lead-glazed antique or handmade pottery or cookware
- and leaded crystal glassware
A child’s health care provider is the best resource for addressing issues about their health. If a child has lead in their blood, a doctor may recommend actions such as finding and removing lead from your home, feeding the child a diet high in iron and calcium, connecting the child to early educational services, and follow-up blood lead testing. Early intervention is key to reducing long-term effects. If a child has high levels of lead in their blood, health care providers may recommend other types of testing and treatment to remove some of the lead from the blood. This may include getting an x-ray to determine if a child has high levels of lead in their blood. If a child has very high levels of lead in their blood, they may receive chelation therapy, which is a medical treatment used to remove lead from the body. For more information on caring for children with lead in their blood, refer to CDC’s Recommended Actions Based on Blood Lead Level.
State and local childhood lead poisoning prevention programs can provide information about treating childhood lead exposure. To find a childhood lead poisoning prevention program in your area, go to https://www.cdc.gov/nceh/lead/programs/default.htm.
Pediatric Environmental Health Specialty Units (PEHSU) are also a source of information. PEHSUs are a regional source of medical information and advice on environmental conditions that influence reproductive and children’s health. They work with health care professionals, parents, schools and community groups, and others to provide information on protecting children and reproductive-age adults from environmental hazards. Contact information for the PEHSU in your region can be found at https://www.pehsu.net/findhelp.html.
If a person is exposed to lead during their pregnancy, their developing baby can also be exposed.
Too much lead in your body while pregnant can:
- Put you at risk for miscarriage
- Cause your baby to be born too early or too small
- Hurt your baby’s brain, kidneys, and nervous system.
- Cause your child to have learning or behavior problems.
For more information, refer to https://www.cdc.gov/nceh/lead/prevention/pregnant.htm.
There is no cure for lead poisoning. That is why preventing exposure to lead, especially among children, is important. Finding and removing sources of lead from the child’s environment is needed to prevent further exposure.
While there is no cure, parents can help reduce the harmful effects of lead exposure by talking to their doctor and getting connected to learning, nutritional, and behavioral programs as soon as possible.
For more information on follow-up and case management for children with lead in their blood, refer to CDC’s Recommended Actions Based on Blood Lead Level.
Parents and caregivers should find out the year their home was built. If a child spends a lot of time somewhere else, such as a grandparent’s home or daycare, parents and caregivers should also find out the year when that place was built. In homes or buildings built before 1978, assume that the paint contains lead unless tests show otherwise. There is also likely to be lead in the soil around older buildings, either from exterior paint or vehicle emissions.
Parents or caregivers can take the following additional steps to protect their family from lead exposure.
- Talking to their child’s health care provider about getting a blood lead test. A blood test is the best way to determine if a child has been exposed to lead.
- Getting their home checked for lead hazards including lead-based paint if it was built before 1978. Renters should ask their landlord to have their home checked for potential lead sources.
- Asking their local water authority to test their water for lead. If there is lead in their tap water, take steps can be taken to reduce or eliminate exposure.
- Using only approved methods for removing lead hazards or use EPA- or state- approved Lead-Safe certified renovation firms.
- Fixing surfaces in the home that have peeling or chipping lead-based paint. Renters should talk to their landlord about fixing this.
- Regularly cleaning floors, windowsills, and other surfaces using wet methods and take precautions to avoid lead dust when remodeling.
- Removing shoes or wiping soil off shoes before entering the house.
- Washing children’s hands, bottles, pacifiers, and toys often.
- Making sure children eat nutritious meals high in iron and calcium.
Lead-safe certified contractors can safely renovate houses and other buildings. The United States Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Lead Renovation, Repair and Painting Program describes steps contractors can take to safely renovate homes built before 1978. A certified risk assessor can help decide whether abatement (eliminating lead hazards completely) is a better option.
You cannot see, taste, or smell lead in drinking water. The best way to know the risk of lead exposure through drinking water is to have a lead test conducted on the water. Many public water providers will test drinking water for residents upon request. Renters can ask their landlord to have their water tested for lead.
Many public water providers have data on drinking water quality, including lead levels, as part of their annual Consumer Confidence Reports. More information is available on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) website.
Property owners can ask their water provider if a lead service line provides water to their home. If they have a lead service line, they can ask if there are any programs to assist with removing lead service line going to their home. Understand that any work, such as water main or service line replacement, could increase exposure to lead while the work is ongoing and for up to six months after the work is completed.