Why Lead Is Dangerous: 4 Health Concerns (2023)

Once believed to be a great innovation, lead paint has turned out to be a huge problem.  

Advertising Policy

Cleveland Clinic is a non-profit academic medical center. Advertising on our site helps support our mission. We do not endorse non-Cleveland Clinic products or services.Policy

Lead paint has existed since as early as the fourth century B.C., and it’s been causing health problems ever since. And while the dangers of lead paint have echoed throughout history, we’re still feeling the effects today. Pediatrician Roopa Thakur, MD, FAAP, explains how lead poisoning can affect our health and shares what we can do to protect our loved ones from it.  

Why was lead added to paint? 

Certain lead compounds were added to paint to create bright, vivid colors like white, yellow and red. And since lead is richly pigmented, lead paint could go a long way when covering large areas. Lead also makes paint resistant to moisture and helps it dry faster. Overall, since lead paint was marketed as being more durable, it was widely used in buildings or to coat metals and children’s toys.  

Why is lead so dangerous? 

By the 1920s, the dangers of lead paint were fairly obvious in this country. Children who accidentally ate lead paint chips or inhaled lead paint dust started experiencing physical and neurological issues that lined up with the symptoms of lead poisoning. And between 1925 and 1927, more painters died in the United States than any other working group. Efforts were made to ban it, but nothing stuck until 1971 when Congress passed the first federal regulation for lead-based paint. Seven years later, U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission issued a final ban on the use of lead paint in all residential housing.

(Video) Why lead poisoning is a danger to your child's health | UNICEF

How lead enters your body 

Lead can be swallowed, inhaled or absorbed through your skin. However, your body takes in more of it when lead is inhaled. When it enters your body, lead is stored in your bones, blood and tissue. As you age, your bones demineralize and lead is released back into your body.  

What’s considered to be a high amount of lead in your body? 

For an adult, a small amount of lead in your body is not a huge concern.A low range of lead in an adult’s system would be less than 10 micrograms per deciliter(mcg/dL).If you’re pregnant,a level of five mcg/dL would be considered elevated becauseeven the smallest amounts of lead in your system could cause development problems for yourunborn child.

A lead blood level above 10 mcg/dL up to 25 mcg/dL is an indicator ofregular lead exposure. Medical treatment is usually required once a person hits 80 mcg/dL orif they’re at a lower level but experiencing symptoms of lead poisoning.

For a child, even the smallest amount of lead can cause developmental problems. With kids, 3.5 mcg/dL of lead in their blood is considered higher than most children’s levels.  

Lead poisoning health effects

High levels of lead in your bloodstream can cause serious health conditions. Some of them include: 

Reproductive problems 

Lead poisoning can affect your reproductive system in several ways. For those who were born male, lead exposure could affect the libido and semen quality. This could lead to fertility issues, miscarriages, preterm birth and more for a partner. For those who were born female, lead exposure can alter menstrual cycles, reduce fertility potential, delay conception time and interrupt hormone production.  

Anemia 

Long-term exposure to lead can slow or stop the production of hemoglobin. Hemoglobin is what gives red blood cells their color and helps blood carry oxygen throughout your body. When lead is in your system, it can keep your body from getting enough iron, and this can lead to anemia.   

Kidney damage 

According to the National Kidney Foundation, kidney damage from lead exposure isn’t as common in the United States these days. If it does occur, cases are usually among workers who are exposed to high amounts of lead on the jobafter several years of exposureand in those with pre-existing kidney problems. Low levels of lead from drinking water or house paint don’t tend to cause kidney damage.

(Video) Why Lead Poisoning is so Dangerous

If you do have kidney damage, it might not be obvious, as most people don’t experience symptoms. However, the damage could show up in the form of extra protein in your urine, high blood pressure or an increased risk for gout. If you think something is wrong, talk to your healthcare provider so they can test for lead.  

Advertising Policy

What lead does to your brain

Lead poisoning can take a major toll on your brain. If it damages your prefrontal cerebral cortex (the part that processes information), hippocampus (the part of your brain that handles learning and memory) and cerebellum (the part that helps control your body’s movements), the damage could lead to behavioral problems, nerve damage and possibly Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease or even schizophrenia. 

Other symptoms of lead poisoning include: 

  • Constipation. 
  • Stomach pain. 
  • Headaches. 
  • Irritability. 
  • Trouble sleeping.  
  • Memory loss.  
  • No appetite. 
  • Always feeling tired. 

Is lead poisoning still a problem for young children? 

While it can affect people of all ages, lead poisoning hits children the hardest. Its health effects are more severe for kids under the age of six because their bodies are developing and growing fast. This age group also tends to be at a higher risk for lead poisoning because young children often put their hands and other objects in their mouths.  

“Children can be exposed to lead at home, school, daycare or even grandma’s house. Lead particles can come from paint chips or paint dust. If those particles are ingested and they get into the bloodstream, that can causelong-term problems for a child,” says Dr. Thakur.  

Some of those problems include: 

(Video) Lead Poisoning Can Cause Serious Health Problems and Death - Kiley Law Group

  • Damage to your brain and nervous system. 
  • Delayed growth. 
  • Hearing problems. 
  • Headaches. 
  • Trouble learning or behavioral issues. 
  • Vomiting. 
  • Hyperactivity. 

Dr. Thakur says that a child could be living with lead poisoning and not show any signs. On the other hand, if they’re experiencing symptoms, those symptoms might not be linked to lead poisoning.  

“When a small child’s lead levels are high, you may not see anything at that moment. Other times, a child might experience vague symptoms like trouble sleeping, behavior problems or feeling tired. As time goes on, you may see long-term effects like stomach problems or behavior issues,” Dr. Thakur says.

She adds that if lead levels are extremely high, a child might have seizures or struggle to do well at school. Their IQ might drop as well.

How to protect children from lead poisoning 

One thing you can do —talk to your child’s pediatricianif you suspect something is wrong.

Dr. Thakur emphasizes thatit’s important to limitlead exposureearly in lifebecause, with proper management,lead poisoningis preventable.  Healthcare providersstarttalking about lead poisoning prevention withfamilies when their child is in infancy. This is becauseinfants and toddlersare playing on the floor, where lead paint dust tends to settle,and as noted, engaging in hand-to-mouth behaviorthat canresult inlead dust inhalation and ingestion.

“I like to share information with parents about limiting lead exposure during a child’s six-month visit.We’ll talk about the best waysto clean the home. If a parent has an occupation that might expose them to lead, I’ll advise them on how to clean their clothes and shoes,” says Dr. Thakur.  

At a child’s 12-monthand 24-monthvisits, Dr. Thakur will do a formal assessment using a questionnaire. If achildis considered high-risk based on this questionnaire, she’ll take a blood sample.For older children who have risk factors for ongoing lead exposure, she recommends yearlyblood tests until the age of 6 years.

But again, keepingkidssafe starts with maintaining a clean home.  

Dr. Thakur recommends wet mopping dailyto remove any lead particles frompaintchipsor dust. She says that some local health departments even allowfamiliesto borrow HEPA vacuums at no cost. These vacuums provide a much deeper clean than average vacuums.  

She suggests wiping down anything that’s on the floor, too. This includes the bases of floor lamps and the legs of tables and chairs. Also, taking your shoes off before entering your home can help, especially if you’re exposed to lead on the job orlive in an area withlead-contaminatedsoil.

Can lead poisoning be reversed? 

While the effects of lead poisoning cannot be reversed, the quality of life for those affected can be improved with a few simple measures.

To prevent further exposure, the lead source first needs to be professionally removed from your home. Never try to do this yourself. If you’re not sure where to start, contact your local health department.

“If a lead blood level is above 45 mcg/dL, your provider may recommendchelation therapyto quickly reduce it. Thiscanrequire hospital admission. If we know that a child has ingested lead paintchips, wecando a bowel cleanout toprevent further lead absorptionintheir GI tract,” Dr. Thakur adds.

Chelation therapy is when certain medications are used to bindleadin your blood. This therapy is delivered through an IV or pills. Once it takes effect, theleadcomes out of your body when you urinate. 

(Video) Heads Up: How 'Text Neck' Can Lead To More Serious Health Problems

If you believe something is wrong, talk to your healthcare provider.

The main thing to keep in mind: If you think that you or your child might have been exposed to lead, talk to your healthcare provider right away to prevent long-term effects.  

“We can’t tell what the outcomes are going to be based on lead levels. The only thing we can do is prevent lead exposure to begin with. There is no safe lead level. That’s why getting tested is very important,” says Dr. Thakur.

FAQs

What is lead and why is it dangerous? ›

Lead is a cumulative toxicant that affects multiple body systems and is particularly harmful to young children. Lead in the body is distributed to the brain, liver, kidney and bones. It is stored in the teeth and bones, where it accumulates over time.

What are four dangers of lead poisoning in children? ›

These include attention deficits, behavior problems, learning difficulties, and decreased IQ in young children. IQ stands for “intelligence quotient.” It measures a person's intelligence. Children under the age of 6 are most at risk for lead poisoning.

Why is lead a dangerous pollutant? ›

Depending on the level of exposure, lead can adversely affect the nervous system, kidney function, immune system, reproductive and developmental systems and the cardiovascular system. Lead exposure also affects the oxygen carrying capacity of the blood.

How much lead is dangerous? ›

What Lead Levels Are Considered Elevated in Adults? occur (extremely dangerous). Between 40 and 80 µg/dL, serious health damage may be occuring, even if there are no symptoms (seriously elevated).

Why is lead dangerous in drinking water? ›

High levels of lead in tap water can cause health effects if the lead in the water enters the blood and causes high blood lead level. It can cause damage to the brain and kidneys, and can interfere with the production of red blood cells that carry oxygen to all parts of the body.

Is lead poisonous to humans? ›

Even small amounts of lead can cause serious health problems. Children younger than 6 years are especially vulnerable to lead poisoning, which can severely affect mental and physical development. At very high levels, lead poisoning can be fatal.

What is lead poisoning caused by? ›

Lead poisoning happens when your child is affected by high levels of lead exposure. Lead poisoning is usually caused by eating or drinking (ingesting) lead, but touching or breathing in the toxic metal can also cause it. Lead poisoning is when any detectable amount of lead is found in your child's blood.

How does lead enter the body? ›

Lead enters the body primarily through inhalation and ingestion. Today, adults are mainly exposed to lead by breathing in lead-containing dust and fumes at work, or from hobbies that involve lead. Lead passes through the lungs into the blood where it can harm many of the body's organ systems.

How does lead affect the brain? ›

Within the brain, lead-induced damage in the prefrontal cerebral cortex, hippocampus, and cerebellum can lead to a variety of neurological disorders, such as brain damage, mental retardation, behavioral problems, nerve damage, and possibly Alzheimer's disease, Parkinson's disease, and schizophrenia.

What is lead pollution? ›

Lead in the air is emitted as aerosol predominately by burning of solid fuel (i.e. coal and biomass) and roasting of pyrite minerals in this region.

How dangerous is lead in clothing? ›

Heavy metals such as lead have been discovered in clothing dyes and synthetic fabrics. They are highly toxic and can cause permanent brain damage, kidney and liver damage, reproductive issues and more.

Is it OK to touch lead? ›

Some studies have found lead can be absorbed through skin. If you handle lead and then touch your eyes, nose, or mouth, you could be exposed. Lead dust can also get on your clothes and your hair. If this happens, it's possible that you may track home some of the lead dust, which may also expose your family.

Can you get lead poisoning from touching lead? ›

Touching lead is not the problem. It becomes dangerous when you breathe in or swallow lead. Breathing It - You can breathe in lead if dust in the air contains lead, especially during renovations that disturb painted surfaces.

How much lead is safe in food? ›

The FDA's current IRL is calculated at 2.2 µg per day for children and 8.8 µg per day for females of childbearing age (updated in 2022).

What happens when a child has lead poisoning? ›

Exposure to lead can seriously harm a child's health, including damage to the brain and nervous system, slowed growth and development, learning and behavior problems, and hearing and speech problems.

What are dangerous levels of lead in water? ›

Risk from lead in water

EPA has set the maximum contaminant level goal for lead in drinking water at zero because lead can be harmful to human health even at low exposure levels. Lead is a toxic metal that is persistent in the environment and can accumulate in the body over time.

Are lead pipes dangerous? ›

ORLANDO, FLORIDA—An estimated 18 million Americans are at risk of lead leaching from old pipes in their homes and city water systems; such exposure can cause neurological problems in adults and—in children—delayed or stunted brain development.

How common is lead poisoning in children? ›

Lead poisoning is very common. 1 in 40 children ages 1-5 years old have blood lead levels that are considered unsafe (over 5 µg/dL).

How much lead is in the human body? ›

As of 2021, the value is set at 3.5 μg/dL.

What foods have lead in them? ›

However, surprisingly high lead levels have been found in some of our favorite foods, like chocolate, peas, cannabis (sorry), sweet potatoes, and mustard greens, as well as other crops. That means lead can wind up in the products you may have in your pantry, like these: baby food. fruit juice.

Who is most at risk of lead poisoning? ›

Children less than six years old are at a higher risk of lead exposure. This is because their bodies are rapidly developing and more susceptible to taking in lead if exposed. Young children also tend to put their hands or other objects into their mouths.

What does lead poisoning do to adults? ›

Lead exposure can cause high blood pressure and brain, kidney and reproductive health issues in adults. Symptoms of lead poisoning include headaches, stomach cramps, constipation, muscle/joint pain, trouble sleeping, fatigue, irritability, and loss of sex drive. Most adults with lead poisoning don't look or feel sick.

What is the main source of lead? ›

Dust. Lead dust is the most common way that people are exposed to lead. Inside the home, most lead dust comes from chipping and flaking paint or when paint is scraped, sanded, or disturbed during home remodeling. Chipping and peeling paint is found mostly on surfaces that rub or bump up against another surface.

How long can lead stay in your body? ›

The time it takes for most of the lead to be excreted depends on how long you have been exposed for. If the lead is not excreted by the kidney or gut within a few weeks the remaining lead moves to your bones and teeth. Some lead can be stored for up to 30 years in bone.

How is lead removed from the body? ›

Most inhaled lead in the lower respiratory tract is absorbed. Most of the lead that enters the body is excreted in urine or through biliary clearance (ultimately, in the feces).

What are the long term side effects of lead poisoning? ›

Exposure to lead can seriously harm a child's health and cause well-documented adverse effects such as:
  • Damage to the brain and nervous system.
  • Slowed growth and development.
  • Learning and behavior problems.
  • Hearing and speech problems.

How does lead damage the cell? ›

Lead then disrupts the movement and storage of calcium inside cells, increasing cell stress, which can lead to the death of neurons and other brain cells. Lead also hijacks calcium's roles in the brain, including communication between neurons.

How does lead poisoning affect behavior? ›

Behavioral Disorders

Lead poisoning has been associated with inattention, impulsivity, delays in reaction time, and hyperactivity.

How does lead poisoning affect the nervous system of a child? ›

Low levels of lead can affect a child's brain and central nervous system. At high levels, lead can cause permanent damage to the brain and nervous system. This damage can lead to seizures, loss of muscle control, and coma. Lead exposure can interrupt a child's progress as they grow.

How is lead poisoning prevented? ›

Primary prevention is the removal of lead hazards from the environment before a child is lead exposed. It is the most effective way to ensure that children do not experience harmful long-term effects of lead exposure. Secondary prevention includes blood lead testing and follow-up care and referral.

What lead looks like? ›

Lead is a bluish-white lustrous metal. It is very soft, highly malleable, ductile, and a relatively poor conductor of electricity. It is very resistant to corrosion but tarnishes upon exposure to air.

Who discovered lead poisoning? ›

Clair C. Patterson

Does washing clothes remove lead? ›

If you are exposed to lead and your employer does not launder your clothing, you should take the clothing home in a plastic bag and put the clothing directly into the washing machine. You should use detergents to remove lead.

Should I wash Shein clothes before wearing? ›

Yes, for the most part, some —not all— Shein clothes can have toxic elements like lead and chemicals from dyes; thus, wash your Shein clothing hauls before wearing. Washing dilutes these dyes and chemicals, reducing the chances of an allergic reaction.

How do you test for lead? ›

A simple blood test can detect lead poisoning. A small blood sample is taken from a finger prick or from a vein. Lead levels in the blood are measured in micrograms per deciliter (mcg/dL).

What is lead found in? ›

Lead is still part of our world today. It is found in the air, soil, dust, and the paint of some homes or buildings built before 1978. Exposure to lead can cause serious health problems.

Is it dangerous to touch lead? ›

Some studies have found lead can be absorbed through skin. If you handle lead and then touch your eyes, nose, or mouth, you could be exposed. Lead dust can also get on your clothes and your hair. If this happens, it's possible that you may track home some of the lead dust, which may also expose your family.

What is lead used for? ›

Lead can be combined with other metals to form alloys. Lead and lead alloys are commonly found in pipes, storage batteries, weights, shot and ammunition, fishing sinkers, cable covers, and sheets used to shield us from radiation. The largest use for lead is in storage batteries in cars and other vehicles.

What is lead poisoning caused by? ›

Lead-based paint and lead-contaminated dust in older buildings are common sources of lead poisoning in children. Other sources include contaminated air, water and soil. Adults who work with batteries, do home renovations or work in auto repair shops also might be exposed to lead.

Who is at risk of lead poisoning? ›

Young children are the most vulnerable. Pregnant women are also at risk for lead poisoning, as are their unborn children. People can be exposed to lead through different types of work and hobbies.

How does lead get into blood? ›

Lead is stored in the bone for decades, causing long-term internal exposure. Lead enters the body primarily through inhalation and ingestion of lead containing dust. Once in the body, lead travels in the blood to soft tissues such as the liver, kidneys, lungs, brain, spleen, muscles, and heart.

When did lead become toxic? ›

Lead's toxicity was recognized and recorded as early as 2000 BC and the widespread use of lead has been a cause of endemic chronic plumbism in several societies throughout history. The Greek philosopher Nikander of Colophon in 250 BC reported on the colic and anemia resulting from lead poisoning.

What does lead do to a child? ›

Exposure to lead can seriously harm a child's health, including damage to the brain and nervous system, slowed growth and development, learning and behavior problems, and hearing and speech problems. Lead paint or dust are not the only ways lead exposure can occur in children.

Is lead dangerous for adults? ›

Lead exposure can cause high blood pressure and brain, kidney and reproductive health issues in adults. Symptoms of lead poisoning include headaches, stomach cramps, constipation, muscle/joint pain, trouble sleeping, fatigue, irritability, and loss of sex drive. Most adults with lead poisoning don't look or feel sick.

What happens if you swallow lead from a pencil? ›

Graphite is relatively nonpoisonous. There may be no symptoms. If symptoms do occur, they may include stomachache and vomiting, which could be from a bowel obstruction (blockage).

What are 4 properties of lead? ›

Lead is a bluish-white lustrous metal. It is very soft, highly malleable, ductile, and a relatively poor conductor of electricity. It is very resistant to corrosion but tarnishes upon exposure to air.

What form of lead is toxic? ›

Organic lead: This form of lead is extremely dangerous — it can be absorbed through the skin and is much more toxic to the brain and central nervous system than inorganic lead.

What are the 3 uses of lead? ›

Lead is still widely used for car batteries, pigments, ammunition, cable sheathing, weights for lifting, weight belts for diving, lead crystal glass, radiation protection and in some solders. It is often used to store corrosive liquids.

Where does lead build up in the body? ›

Blood, Mineralizing tissues (bones and teeth), which typically contain the vast majority of the lead body burden, and. Soft tissue (liver, kidneys, lungs, brain, spleen, muscles, and heart).

What is the main source of lead? ›

Dust. Lead dust is the most common way that people are exposed to lead. Inside the home, most lead dust comes from chipping and flaking paint or when paint is scraped, sanded, or disturbed during home remodeling. Chipping and peeling paint is found mostly on surfaces that rub or bump up against another surface.

Can you taste lead in drinking water? ›

You cannot see, taste, or smell lead in drinking water. The best way to know your risk of exposure to lead in drinking water is to identify the potential sources of lead in your service line and household plumbing.

Videos

1. How can we reduce the harmful effects of lead poisoning?
(Lone Star College)
2. How sitting all day can lead to some serious health issues
(PBS NewsHour Student Reporting Labs)
3. Why Is Lead Poisoning Dangerous?
(Frankel Law Firm)
4. Do dangerous levels of lead permeate your home?
(syracuse.com)
5. The greatest danger to your children? Lead poisoning! #HamCoHealth
(Hamilton County Public Health)
6. Lead effects on our children can be serious
(Hamilton County Public Health)
Top Articles
Latest Posts
Article information

Author: Kerri Lueilwitz

Last Updated: 01/07/2023

Views: 5896

Rating: 4.7 / 5 (47 voted)

Reviews: 86% of readers found this page helpful

Author information

Name: Kerri Lueilwitz

Birthday: 1992-10-31

Address: Suite 878 3699 Chantelle Roads, Colebury, NC 68599

Phone: +6111989609516

Job: Chief Farming Manager

Hobby: Mycology, Stone skipping, Dowsing, Whittling, Taxidermy, Sand art, Roller skating

Introduction: My name is Kerri Lueilwitz, I am a courageous, gentle, quaint, thankful, outstanding, brave, vast person who loves writing and wants to share my knowledge and understanding with you.